CLEVELAND -- When defensive lineman Cam Heyward watched the Pittsburgh Steelers kick off midway through the third quarter of Sunday's 15-10 win against the Cleveland Browns, he knew the second half was going to be even more bizarre than the first. From the sideline he saw rookie punter Pressley Harvin III line up to kick off from the tee at the 35-yard line -- a duty usually handled by veteran kicker Chris Boswell.
"I see Pressley start kicking kickoffs," Heyward said, "I was like, 'Oh hell.'"
Boswell exited the game at the end of the second half with a concussion, sustained when he took a hard hit during a pass attempt on a fake field goal play. Tied 3-3, the Steelers attempted to run a fake from the 10-yard line. As he targeted tight end Zach Gentry in the end zone, Boswell was hit hard by defensive tackle Jordan Elliott as he threw.
"We were just playing to win," Tomlin said of the decision to run the fake. "We were playing aggressively. Ball was on the left hash. We had a look that we liked. We just didn't execute it very well. The ball wasn't snapped in a timely manner. It allowed them to take a picture of it. When that happens, you're not going to be successful. But again, I take responsibility for it. I shouldn't have called it unless we were ready to run it with detailed execution and it's obvious that we weren't and that's on me."
As he tackled Boswell, Elliott appeared to contact the kicker's helmet with the crown of his own, but officials didn't throw a flag.
"He is a passer, he is outside the pocket, so he's still afforded the protections of a passer," official Shawn Hochuli said in a pool report. "Not two-step protection and not low-hit protection, but everything else that applies to a passer. And no, we did not see any contact that rose to the level of a foul. It wasn't late and, as I said, we didn't see contact that rose to the level of a foul."
Boswell was evaluated for a concussion at halftime and officially ruled out early in the third quarter. That left the Steelers (4-3) without a place-kicker in a game where they scored only a field goal in the first half.
"I tell guys all the time, everyone wants to be a quarterback until you have to throw the ball and someone's about to hit you," Roethlisberger said. "I'm glad Boz is OK, but that's a situation no one wants to be in."
Roethlisberger said he knew at halftime that without Boswell, the team wouldn't attempt a field goal or extra point in the second half.
"We started talking, 'OK, am I going to start doing some pooch punting or am I going to hold?' I'm the emergency holder," Roethlisberger said. "Then we found out that Pressley doesn't kick and we're like, well let's let him try, but I hold with my right hand, so that probably wouldn't be good if he hit my hand. There was a lot of discussion at halftime. Mike kind of said, 'Listen, he's not kicking. So let's just get ready to go.'"
Even though kicking wasn't a likely option, defensive back Cam Sutton practiced holds with long-snapper Christian Kuntz on the sideline during the second half, but they never deployed the patchwork, emergency crew.
Without Boswell, the Steelers carried an aggressive mindset through the second half -- one Tomlin said doesn't deviate much from the usual attitude of Roethlisberger.
"He plays like he's got no kicker anyway," Tomlin said with a laugh. "He's an Ohio boy, man. He's trying to win when he comes home."
The Steelers attempted 2-point conversions after each second-half touchdown and both failed. After running back Najee Harris' 8-yard touchdown run, Roethlisberger would have converted the 2-point try on a quarterback draw if not for a holding penalty against Kendrick Green.
"I'm just crazy I guess," Roethlisberger said of his run. "I wish it would've counted -- that would've made for a great story."
The Steelers finished 2-of-4 on fourth downs. In the third quarter, Harris converted fourth-and-1 with a 1-yard run during his scoring drive. And in the fourth, Freiermuth's score came on fourth-and-2 from the 2.
"It was weird because when Najee scored, I was like, 'Why are we going for 2?'" Freiermuth said. "And then we got the penalty and backed up and I was like, 'Why are we still going for 2?' And I came off the sideline and they were like, 'We don't have a kicker.' And I was like, 'Oh that makes sense.' I was confused."
After Freiermuth's early fourth-quarter touchdown, the Steelers led by just 5 points, and they were acutely aware of the predicament they faced without a kicker.
"You're sitting there watching the game transpire and you're going, 'OK, if they score, we're down by 2, and we don't have a field goal, what are we going to do?'" Roethlisberger said. "So, you just got to go in the mindset, you're going for it on fourth down and you've got to get ready to go for it 2-point play."
The Steelers had nine 2-point conversion plays ready, Tomlin said, but clinging to a 5-point lead, the game ultimately came down to two significant series for the defense. First, linebacker Joe Schobert forced wide receiver Jarvis Landry to fumble in the red zone with 6:14 remaining, and T.J. Watt recovered. Then, the Steelers forced a turnover on downs at the 26-yard line with 1:58 left.
"Everyone played a selfless game," Tomlin said. "They put the collective in front of the personal agendas, and we fought. That's the only way you get out of those environments, particularly with some of the adversity that we faced today, some of which was created by us, some of which was created by me. The fake field goal was a bad call because we poorly executed it. I take responsibility for that.
"I appreciate the guys backing my play and fighting for 60 minutes and delivering a victory and making it a side note."