CLEVELAND (AP) — For Pittsburgh’s first road game, Antonio Brown wore a bow tie and purple and black suit embroidered with fire-breathing gold dragons. He completed his outlandish outfit with ruby red-sequined sneakers.
The flashy look was both dazzling and jaw-dropping — just like Brown’s game.
The All-Pro wide receiver made a crucial, leaping catch with less than three minutes left and Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes to tight end Jesse James as the Steelers, with minimal help from Le’Veon Bell, opened the season by holding off the Cleveland Browns 21-18 on Sunday.
Roethlisberger improved to 21-2 in his career against the Browns, who led by rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer gave their rivals all they could handle — a positive sign for coach Hue Jackson and Cleveland fans after a horrid 1-15 season.
But the Browns couldn’t stop Brown. With the Steelers clinging to their 3-point lead, he somehow caught and held onto Roethlisberger’s throw in traffic for a 38-yard gain with 2:26 left to seal Pittsburgh’s win. Brown finished with 11 receptions for 182 yards.
“I’ve watched him make unbelievable plays like that from the stands,” said Steelers rookie running back James Conner, who played at Pitt and grew up rooting for Pittsburgh. “So to be out there with him when he does it is crazy. He’s an amazing football player.”
Kizer, who ran for a TD and threw a scoring a scoring in an impressive debut, had pulled the Browns within three on a 3-yard TD pass to Corey Coleman followed by a 2-point conversion with 3:36 left.
With Pittsburgh needing a big play, Brown delivered one — as usual.
Roethlisberger rolled left to buy some time and lobbed his deep pass near Pittsburgh’s sideline toward Brown, who went up over defensive back Jason McCourty and hauled in the game’s biggest catch. Jackson challenged the call, but it held up after a video review and the Steelers improved to 32-6 against the Browns since 1999.
“It’s not our first rodeo,” said Roethlisberger, who passes for 263 yards. “I see AB go and I’m going to take that shot. I’ve got all the trust in the world in him, he’s got it in me. I don’t think there are any two guys who have worked together more than him and I do.
“So, it’s fun to watch him play and be on the same team with him.”
The Browns have lost 13 straight openers, but they showed some promise, especially with Kizer and a vastly improved defense that played well despite not having top overall pick Myles Garrett, who injured his ankle earlier this week.
Bell, who skipped training camp in a contract dispute, ran tentatively and gained just 32 yards on 10 carries. He rejoined his teammates last week and signed his $12.1 million franchise tag, far less than he feels he deserves.
The Steelers sacked Kizer seven times, two by rookie T.J. Watt, the younger brother of Houston star J.J. Watt. The first-round pick also had an interception in a memorable debut.
With the Browns driving late in the third, Watt picked off Kizer.
“I was dropping back in coverage and it came right to me,” Watt said. “Once I caught it, I just tried not to fumble it.”
Steelers CB Joe Haden began the day looking for the visitors’ locker room. He ended it holding the game ball.
Released recently by Cleveland, Haden faced the team he played with for seven seasons. He exchanged jerseys with Browns LB Christian Kirksey at midfield following the game and got some good-natured kidding by his new teammates for finally winning an opener.
Haden said he doesn’t hold a grudge with Jackson.
“Me and the coach have a really good relationship. “It’s strong.”
In a show of unity, the Browns ran from their tunnel and onto the field before the game accompanied by Cleveland police officers, firefighters, military personnel and emergency workers.
After being criticized for kneeling in prayer during the national anthem before an exhibition, several Browns players, who felt their gesture had been misinterpreted, met with owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam to discuss ways to help Cleveland — and the nation — heal during a time of division. As part of better connecting to the community, the Browns asked to be joined by the public servants.
They all stood together for the national anthem and were joined on the sideline by the Haslams and Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams.
“We love our police department and our military and everything they do for us, and we respect what they do,” Jackson said. “We showed that today, and we showed that we are all together in this.”
Steelers: Host Minnesota on Sunday.
Browns: Travel to Baltimore on Sunday.