Steelers' playoff tuneup a near loss to Browns but a 'healthy' win

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers left Heinz Field with (mostly) good health, their stars upright and convenient talking points for coaches, who saw their first-team defense look shaky against the Cleveland Browns.

In a game that was, at times, brutal to watch, consider this an optimal outcome.

With the No. 3 AFC playoff seed locked up, the Steelers had left their edge at home for much of a 27-24 overtime win against Cleveland -- complete with a Landry Jones-to-Cobi Hamilton walk-off touchdown connection, naturally. After winning six straight games of meaning before this, though, the Steelers could play this one however they wanted.

And they love beating Cleveland at home, which they did for the 13th straight time.

How's this for a coaching juxtaposition: Mike Tomlin called his team's performance "ugly" and "quite beautiful."

"The fight is real. The fight has been on display all the way back to Latrobe with this bunch," Tomlin said. "Respect that element of it. That can only carry you so far. We have to execute better moving forward."

The Steelers chose to start most of their defensive players and offensive line but rest offensive stars Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey.

Expecting raw intensity for 60 minutes seemed far-fetched after even Big Ben admitted he was looking ahead to the No. 6-seed Miami Dolphins, the Steelers' first-round opponent. The Browns' offense, one of the league's worst, posted 437 total yards, with running back Isaiah Crowell breaking off 142 yards on his first 16 carries, an average of nearly 9 yards per clip.

Tomlin said after the game that he didn't have a 70-man roster, so he played the players "available to us." That included an offensive line battery that gave up four sacks Sunday after averaging about 1.3 per game through the first 15. The performance knocked them out of contention for the franchise record for fewest allowed.

Guard David DeCastro said that this game was difficult because the team knew it had the playoff fate cemented, but you can't "mess around" like pickup basketball once inside an NFL game.

"It wasn't anyone’s fault, but we weren’t really there," DeCastro said. "We have to get back to where we were before that.”

None of this is much to overanalyze. The Steelers had allowed 16.1 points per game in the previous six games. They've earned the benefit of the doubt here. And they are winners of seven straight now.

But couple this game play with the vivid memory of Miami running back Jay Ajayi’s 204 rushing yards on Pittsburgh in Week 6, and the Steelers' run defense will perk up.

"It will definitely be nice if we get another shot at [Miami] and redeem our performance," cornerback Ross Cockrell said.

The day was not without its injury issues. In the fourth quarter, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave was evaluated for a possible concussion but returned. Hargrave missed a December game while in the concussion protocol, so the Steelers will want to keep him healthy. Defensive end Ricardo Mathews hurt his right ankle. An already-thin defensive line needs bubble wrap this week.

The Steelers got key contributions from several role players who will be needed against Miami. Darrius Heyward-Bey’s 46-yard catch downfield showcased speed that could help the Steelers on the outside. Heyward-Bey missed most of the past two months with a foot injury. Eli Rogers, Demarcus Ayers and Hamilton combined for 14 catches.

Jones, a soon-to-be free agent auditioning for the rest of the league, was about as expected, shrugging off a few curious decisions with some accurate passing late. He finished 24-of-37 for 277 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. DeAngelo Williams found the end zone twice, proving once again he's a viable option behind Bell.

But the Steelers can -- and should -- be glad this is over.

The first half was uninspiring, with the defense giving up a 10-yard draw to a third-string tailback and the offense backed into its own territory. The Steelers' 52 yards of offense in the first half was their fewest before halftime since 2008.

None of that matters now, because it's on to Miami.

"We have to remember it's about us -- to get our stuff together before we worry about other people," linebacker Lawrence Timmons said.