September 6, 2014
PITTSBURGH - Brian Hoyer stormed into the locker room at halftime and challenged the Browns to snap out of their 27-3 yellow-and-black funk.
"(I) just said, 'Are we going to lay down and die or are we going to battle back?' '' Hoyer said. "I told those guys at the end of the game that I'll take that team to the end of the earth if we're going to fight back like that.
"Obviously we don't want to have to always do that, but if you have the heart and character to battle back against that team and get back to where we were, I'll take that team any day.''
Hoyer, playing with all the magic that enabled him to go 3-0 last season, engineered four straight scoring drives and 24 straight points to tie the game 27-27 and almost pull off the upset. He did it with an up-tempo, no-huddle offense that caught the Steelers off guard. All this time, the Steelers were preparing for Johnny Manziel -- and Hoyer's no-huddle almost did them in.
In the end, however, Ben Roethlisberger pulled another Houdini act and beat the Browns 30-27 on a last-second field goal.
"It was really just one play after another and those guys getting pretty tired,'' said Hoyer of the Steelers defense. "We knew exactly what were doing and it's quick and you guys saw how successful it was, so it's something that obviously we'll have to keep doing but we have to keep improving on other stuff too.''
Hoyer was lights-out in the second half, completing 15-of-20 attempts for 173 yards with one TD pass -- a 9-yarder to Travis Benjamin -- for a 117.2 second-half rating. It was a dramatic turnaround from the first half, when Hoyer completed 4-of-11 attempts for 57 yards and a 54.0 rating.
"When he's in his rhythm, he's damn good,'' said guard John Greco. "And it's exciting to see that, and that makes us want to play harder and get the run game going a little bit. It makes us want to block harder, block longer, so we'll try to build on that.''
Overall, Hoyer completed 19-of-31 attempts for 230 yards with one TD and no interceptions for a 94.8 rating. It looked so shaky in the first half that it seemed inevitable that Johnny Manziel would come in off the bench soon to save the day.
But Hoyer made it impossible for the rookie to make his NFL debut by producing scores on the first four of his six second-half drives: two straight Isaiah Crowell touchdown runs, a Billy Cundiff field goal, and the 9-yard TD pass to Benjamin.
"The way the game went, we just never felt the need for (Manziel),'' said coach Mike Pettine.
Hoyer's second-half flurry was accomplished without starting running back Ben Tate, who suffered a knee injury in the first half; and tight end Jordan Cameron, who reinjured his sprained shoulder after one play in the third quarter and never returned.
Rookie running backs Crowell and Terrance West (16 attempts, 100 yards) fueled the comeback, and Hoyer responded with big passes to tight ends Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge, and Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins' 17-harder over the middle set up the game-tying touchdown pass to Benjamin with 11:15 left in the game.
"Oh, man, I'm so proud of Hoyer,'' said cornerback Joe Haden. "He was commanding the offense, controlling it, coming off to the sideline fired up, hot, just all in the defense's face and the offense's face. It just spread around the team. Everybody was walking around hyped, motivated.''
Said Steelers cornerback Troy Polamalu: "He played well enough to beat us.''
Unfortunately for Hoyer, the magic ran out two drives too early. On his next-to-last possession, he forced a third-down pass to Gary Barnidge from the Steelers' 35, and it was quickly broken up to force a punt.
"We needed 5 yards for a field goal, and I thought that if I could fit it into him quick and move up 5 yards, we could get a field goal,'' Hoyer said. "Really for me, I just have to play it out and not try to force it in there and just let the play progress. As you saw, there were two people on him pretty tight which usually means someone is open. I have to watch the film, but that's the one that sticks out in my head.''
Hoyer took over again at his 20 with 1:53 remaining and was sacked on the first play. He threw incomplete to Hawkins on second down, and then Hoyer couldn't hear the play on third down and his short pass to Hawkins lost 5 yards. The Browns punted and Roethlisberger took over at his 43 with :47 seconds remaining for the game-winning field goal drive, which ended with a 41-yard kick as time expired.
"The mic cuts out with 15 seconds left on the play clock and I got the formation and protection but I didn't hear the route, so we just went with a play we have prepared for that situation,'' he said. "It was kind of a messed-up situation, but we tried to at least get out there not have to waste a timeout or anything like that.
Hoyer also wanted back a third-and-1 play at the Steelers' 5, the one that led to Cundiff's field goal that pulled the Browns within 27-20. Hoyer turned the wrong way on a handoff to Crowell and lost 2 yards.
"That play was on me, all on me,'' said Hoyer. "We have two plays like that and I thought it was the other one. That was all on me and I have to get that down and get it right because who knows what happens? That could have been a four-point swing.''
Hoyer also lamented his missed opportunities in the first half. After a rousing first drive in which he hit Cameron for a 47-yard strike down the right side, the offense self-destructed in the red zone and had to settle for three. The rest of the first half featured four three-and-outs and five straight punts.
On one of those drives, Hoyer -- who converted only 2-of-11 third downs -- overthrew a wide-open Cameron on third-and-1 and skipped another third-down pass for Cameron into the turf. He also missed a wide-open Tate.
"We can't get down to whatever yard-line it is on the first drive and then not move the ball the rest of the first half,'' said Hoyer. "It was great to see the character of the team we have, knowing we'll never quit and we'll scratch, fight and claw our way back. (But) the margin for error in this league is so small that you have to capitalize on every opportunity that you have.''
Pettine wouldn't acknowledge that Hoyer validated his choice as the starter.
"I don't want to say rewarded,'' said Pettine. "We're 0-1. It's hard to pull feel-good moments out of it. The resolve, the comeback, the grit that we showed in the second half (was good), but we're still in the win business. While Brian played well, I think he'll be the first to tell you, there are a lot of plays he'd want over.''
While the no-huddle rattled the Steelers -- who were outscored 24-3 in the second half -- Hoyer knows it can't be a full-time gig.
"I think we have to improve on just playing normal football too,'' he said. "You can't always rely on that. Our linemen would lose 30 pounds if we did that all year, so we just have to get better at the things we didn't do so well. We never ran no-huddle in the preseason and I don't know how much you guys saw of that in the practices, but the rest of the league knows us now because we put it on film.
"It was great, but when it comes down to it, we can't put ourselves in that type of hole, especially against a team like Pittsburgh. We wanted to come out today and earn their respect, and we got close, but we have to finish it next time.''
Despite the loss, the players left Pittsburgh feeling like the Hoyer of 2013 is back.
"He's our quarterback,'' said Haden. "That's the way I feel about it. He's our starting quarterback and we're just going to be behind him, during his hard times and doing what he does really well. You could see it in the second half what kind of quarterback he can be for us, how he can lead this team, score and basically hold it down on the offensive side of the ball.''
For almost 30 minutes, that is.