By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- The Steel City now has the upper hand in the Rust Belt rivalry.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't play like a rookie, throwing for one touchdown and running for another, leading the Pittsburgh Steelers past the Cleveland Browns 34-23 Sunday at Heinz Field.
"We got blown out," Browns safety Chris Crocker said. "We got beat in every phase of the game."
In winning the 105th meeting of the rivalry, the Steelers (4-1) solidified their stranglehold on the AFC North while exploiting many of the Browns' weaknesses.
"We pride ourselves defensively on not giving up the big plays," said Browns coach Butch Davis, whose team fell behind 34-13 in the third quarter and never seriously challenged, "but Pittsburgh made us pay."
The Browns didn't contain Roethlisberger, the former Miami (Ohio) standout and Findlay native, who completed 16-of-21 passes for 231 yards.
"Every week it gets a little better because we're getting more comfortable with each other," Roethlisberger said. "The weeks in practice and the preparation have really helped."
Nor did Cleveland (2-3) contain receiver Plaxico Burress (six catches for 136 yards and a touchdown) or running back Duce Staley (117 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown).
Burress and Staley, who recorded his third straight 100-yard game, were part of a Pittsburgh offense that outgained Cleveland 401-296.
"They were able to make the plays in the passing game, and they were also able to run the football," Browns cornerback Daylon McCutcheon said. "When you can do both well, it's hard to win the game."
Ironically, the rookie Roethlisberger looked like the veteran while Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowler, looked dazed and confused in the face of a stifling Steeler defense.
"They brought a lot of pressure, but it was not anything we had not seen," Davis said. "We have to step up and block them. We can't have the quarterback under duress the entire time."
The Browns were held without an offensive touchdown until Andre' Davis' 7-yard catch from Garcia with 8:44 remaining in the game that completed the scoring.
By then, though, the damage had been done.
"We had a good start to the third quarter and we went into the run-down-the-clock mode," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said.
Because the Browns couldn't reach the end zone consistently, Phil Dawson kicked three field goals -- of 24, 34 and 46 yards, respectively -- and now has converted a career-high 21 consecutive attempts.
"We're not offensively out of synch," Garcia maintained. "We're doing a good job at times, but when we're inside the [red zone], we haven't put touchdowns on the board.
"When you're settling for field goals instead of touchdowns, you never put pressure on the opposing team."
Cleveland dug itself a sizable halftime hole (27-13) with that less than desirable offensive performance.
Instead, the Browns needed Crocker's 20-yard interception return for a touchdown and two field goals from Dawson to stay within 14 points.
Rookie and the rivalry
Meanwhile, Roethlisberger was getting his first taste of the rivalry, and he performed well under pressure -- not unsurprising considering he had thousands of cheering, towel-waving, black-and-gold wearing fans behind him.
"They kept the offense simple, and he made good decisions," McCutcheon said of Roethlisberger. "You don't want to put the whole game in the rookie's hands. You want to keep it simple for him, and I think they did."
Roethlisberger ran for a 6-yard touchdown and passed 37 yards to Burress for another as the Steelers set the game's tone in the first 30 minutes.