His ankle wasn’t sprained nor his confidence shattered.
That’s as close as the Browns came to a victory Sunday in the mustard-colored stadium at the convergence of the three rivers. McCoy, the rookie quarterback from Texas, impressed coaches, teammates and opponents with his composure in extreme circumstances. He threw for 281 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions and was sacked five times. Most importantly, he never wilted under the pressure.
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He helped the Browns (1-4) hang around well into the second half despite adding a pair to the injury pile, but Pittsburgh capitalized on two late turnovers and pulled away for a 28-10 win.
The Browns haven’t won two in a row in the rivalry in a decade, have lost seven straight at Heinz Field and have dropped 19 of 21 overall.
“Obviously you don’t want to come in here and lose,” McCoy said. “I go into each game expecting to win, expecting to play good. That’s why they drafted me, that’s why I’m here.”
The Steelers (4-1) proved they were the better team, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger showed he didn’t forget anything during his four-game suspension following a sexual assault allegation. Linebacker James Harrison reminded anyone within earshot — or with access to a highlight show — that mercy isn’t part of his vocabulary.
A pair of huge hits by Harrison in the second quarter knocked receivers Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi from the game with concussions. McCoy was left to lead a handcuffed offense against the NFL’s top-ranked scoring and rushing defense. He had only two healthy receivers (Chansi Stuckey and Brian Robiskie), a running back limited by a strained quadriceps (Peyton Hillis) and the Steelers coming after him on nearly every play.
McCoy was the 16th quarterback to start for Cleveland since returning in 1999, and the 12th rookie in franchise history. His 281 yards were second by a Browns rookie in his debut, trailing Eric Zeier’s 310 in 1995.
“It was a great day for football. You couldn’t ask for anything better,” said McCoy, who scrambled four times for 22 yards. “I don’t want to make it about me because it was about this team.
“But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m glad I got to come in here and start against a great division team. I learned a lot from it. We’ll keep moving and keep plugging away.”
McCoy’s first interception came on the game’s first drive after a nice 19-yard throw to tight end Evan Moore on third-and-10. But from the 45-yard line following a sack, McCoy threw into triple coverage deep over the middle for tight end Benjamin Watson. The ball was tipped, and Ryan Clark snatched it.
The second interception, by linebacker Lawrence Timmons, sealed the deal late in the fourth quarter. Another pass over the middle for Watson was batted into the air by safety Ryan Mundy.
“I think he did all right,” Steelers end Aaron Smith said of McCoy, who had a decent 80.5 rating and a 12-yard touchdown to Watson. “He’s still a young guy. I’m sure he had some trouble recognizing some stuff, but he put some points on the board.”
Even though the Browns trailed just 7-3 midway through the third quarter, the game turned with about nine minutes left in the second quarter when Harrison sent Cribbs to the locker room with a helmet-to-helmet hit. Cribbs took the snap as the Wildcat quarterback and looked to pass. With no one open, he tucked it and ran.
Cribbs was bottled up, Harrison came flying in and the former Kent State Flashes collided headfirst. Cribbs went limp, dropping the ball for a fumble recovered by the Browns. He lay facedown for a few minutes and many teammates kneeled in prayer. Cribbs was able to walk to the sideline and into the locker room after he lost the fight with a doctor to return.
“He’s a beast,” Steelers receiver Hines Ward said of Harrison. “You see a guy like that — knocking guys out like that — he’s a man on a mission. Hopefully nothing is seriously wrong with those guys. But he set the tempo for everybody else.
“It’s always good beating up on Cleveland.”
Later in the quarter, Harrison used his forearms to hit Massaquoi, who had dropped the ball on a shallow crossing route. Massaquoi was dazed, but walked off and into the locker room. A penalty wasn’t thrown on either play.
“They didn’t throw a flag, but it knocked him out, so it was a vicious hit,” Stuckey said of the Massaquoi play. “We’ll see how the league handles it in the coming days. I’m sure they’ll take a long look at it.”
The league can levy fines if it deems a hit unnecessary roughness. Cribbs and Massaquoi didn’t go to the hospital and bused back to Berea with the team.
The Browns especially missed Cribbs, who returns kicks, plays receiver and runs out of the Wildcat, which was an integral part of the game plan to ease the burden on McCoy. Without arguably their best player, the Browns stood less of a chance against the Steelers, who were 14-point favorites.
Roethlisberger’s debut was a greater success than McCoy’s, but that’s not surprising. He’s won two Super Bowls in his sixplus- year career and improved to 11-1 against the Browns. He showed some rust with a few high throws — one leading to Joe Haden’s first NFL interception and a 62-yard return, which set up Phil Dawson’s record-setting field goal— but was the same Big Ben that’s tortured the Browns.
He went 16-for-27 for 257 yards, three touchdowns, an interception and a 112.7 rating. He wasn’t sacked despite a bunch of blitzes, as he stood tall in the pocket and wouldn’t go down. He took advantage of cornerbacks Eric Wright and Sheldon Brown, who continue to give up big plays every week. “It’s not our story,” coach Mike Tomlin said of Roethlisberger’s return. “Our story is the story of the 2010 Steelers and our quest to win football games.”
Roethlisberger received loud cheers from the fans. The home crowd always gives a second chance.
“Amazing! I got a little bit of tears in my eyes, to hear a cheer like that was truly something special,” Roethlisberger said.
If McCoy ever evolves into something special, the first step was taken Sunday.
As it is with his team, the journey ahead is long and difficult.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or email@example.com.