PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin’s heart was heavy when he went to work on Sunday morning. The Steelers coach wasn’t alone.
All of Pittsburgh felt broken after 11 innocent people were killed in a shooting at a synagogue that Tomlin estimated is “800 yards” from his home. But true to its steely reputation, the city — and the Steelers — stayed strong.
“I’m a member of the Squirrel Hill community personally,” Tomlin said after Pittsburgh’s 33-18 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. “Words cannot express how we feel as members of the community. I’m not going to make this about me or about us. We’re just glad we are here to serve our community if we can in some small way.”
Tomlin had addressed his players about the shooting on Saturday night, hours after a gunman walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue during services and killed eight men and three women ranging in age from 54 to 97. The dead included Cecil and David Rosenthal, whose sister, Michele, is the Steelers’ former community relations director.
The deaths hit home for a team as connected to its fan base as any in the NFL.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he was overcome with emotion on his drive to Heinz Field, during pregame warmups and when the stadium observed a moment of silence before kickoff.
“It was crazy tough and especially of Michele and the closeness that we have with her,” said Roethlisberger, who threw a pair of touchdown passes to Antonio Brown. “Coach always talked about when you step inside the white lines everything else has to kind of go away, but sometimes it’s easier said than done. I told the guys during the post-team prayer, we’re thankful for a victory, but we also understand there are bigger things, there is life.
“I am glad we can give people maybe three hours of a break of not thinking about it all the time. That is what sports does sometimes — it helps you to heal. It’s over, people are going to enjoy this, but reality still sets in for a lot of people.”
James Conner rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns for the Steelers (4-2-1), who looked so vulnerable earlier this season when they tied Cleveland in the opener.
But with Conner making Le’Veon Bell’s messy contract holdout less impactful every game behind an offensive line backing up praise about Conner, the Steelers appear to be the class of the AFC North again.
For Conner, who played college ball at Pitt and won his own battled with cancer, Sunday’s win went deeper than just being the 15th in a row at Heinz Field over the rival Browns.
“Today was much bigger than a game of football,” said Conner, who scored on runs of 12 and 22 yards. “Our city took a hit, and our hearts are with all of the victims and their families.”
The Browns lost their 25th straight road game, 20th in a row under embattled coach Hue Jackson.
While Jackson’s days appear numbered, there are also rumblings about offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s future.
Jackson caused an uproar last week following a loss at Tampa Bay when he pledged to “dive” in and help Cleveland’s struggling offense. Well, the Browns were still plagued by many of the same problems and Jackson continues to insist he and Haley are not at odds.
Still, there’s drama.
“There’s nothing wrong with my relationship with Haley,” Jackson said. “I said what I said last week, and obviously, it had legs, but I never said I wanted to take away play calling. I said I wanted to help. That’s it. The only thing that’s going on is we need to get better. We need to coach better.”
Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield won’t forget his introduction to the Steelers.
Mayfield threw two touchdown passes — the second with 6 seconds left — and had some nice moments in his fifth career start. But he was under pressure all day, took some hard shots, and it seems as if the Browns aren’t doing enough to cater the offense to his strengths.
Mayfield looked beaten as he left the podium and slowly headed toward the bus for the 2 ½-hour bus ride back to Ohio. He joined a long list of Browns QBs to take their lumps in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve seen better days,” said Mayfield, who finished 22 of 36 for 180 yards. “But that’s the nature of playing a good team. They’re physical.”
Brown finished with six catches for 74 yards, just another day at the office for arguably the game’s best receiver. Brown has caught a TD pass in five straight games and he and Roethlisberger have connected on 67 career TDs, tying them with Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne for the seventh most by a QB-WR tandem in league history.
Roethlisberger was unaware the Steelers are 8-0 when Brown has a completion of 40 yards or more.
“Really,” Big Ben said. “Let’s throw it deep every single play and see what happens.”