There was talk of a Super Bowl hangover after dropping two of the first three games. Pittsburgh’s defense also struggled to hold leads, and there were significant injuries early to safety Troy Polamalu (knee), tailback Willie Parker (toe) and defensive end Aaron Smith (shoulder). Smith is out for the season.
Yet, the Steelers have won twice as many games as they’ve lost and are tied for the best record in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals (4-2), who currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh amassed 543 total yards but had four turnovers in a sloppy victory at Heinz Field.
"A lot of things were done at a high level," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said afterward. "But we continue to fall short of perfection, and we acknowledge that."
Pittsburgh had its share of miscues against the struggling Browns (1-5).
The Steelers had an interception and three lost fumbles in a game that would have been much closer against a better opponent. Pittsburgh will play top-level competition starting next week against the undefeated Minnesota Vikings (6-0) and need to be much more efficient. Games against the Denver Broncos and Bengals will follow.
The turnovers may sting, but Pittsburgh won its 12th game in a row in this rivalry. Perhaps the biggest bright spot was the passing game and the performance of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who put together his second career 400-yard performance with 417 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He spread the ball to six receivers as Cleveland failed to cover anyone on a consistent basis.
The running game also contributed 140 yards, with starting tailback Rashard Mendenhall leading the way with 62 yards and a third-quarter touchdown. The Steelers are averaging 31 points per game during a three-game winning streak over the San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions and Cleveland.
"I don’t even think we know how good we can be [offensively], truth be told," Roethlisberger said. "I think we have to keep striving for excellence."
Added Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians: "The points didn’t match the performance. When we put it all together we’re going to be pretty darn good."
With the passing game clicking, receivers Hines Ward (eight catches, 159 yards) and Santonio Holmes (five catches, 104 yards) both had big days and big plays. Tight end Heath Miller added five catches for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Pittsburgh benefited from short fields in the second half. But lost fumbles by Roethlisberger, Mendenhall and Parker kept even more points off the board.
"There’s always room for improvement," Holmes said. "We’re giving up points, putting the ball on the ground, and we’re not stopping teams from driving down the field."
The return of Polamalu at safety paid big dividends as the Steelers held the Browns to one offensive touchdown. Polamalu had four tackles and an interception in his first game since Sept. 10.
Pittsburgh’s defense looked much better with Polamalu in the back end of the secondary. There weren’t nearly as many big passing plays allowed, and the Steelers had two sacks and forced four turnovers. The Steelers, who struggled mightily in the fourth quarter earlier this season, held Cleveland scoreless in the final period to preserve the win.
Tomlin said the Steelers may have to monitor how Polamalu’s knee responds after the safety's first game action in more than a month.
"I feel good," Polamalu said in the locker room. "Had we lost, who knows? But after a victory, everything feels pretty good."
Pittsburgh was the only AFC North team to win in Week 6. That further tightens the three-team division race as the Steelers, Bengals and Baltimore Ravens (3-3) all have issues but remain within a game of each other.
"We’re not big-picture guys," Tomlin said about the team's standing. "It’s going to all sort out in the wash. The thing is, as we continue to push through this journey, we better continue to be a team on the rise."