PITTSBURGH (AP) Lawrence Timmons sounded like a changed man.
It's not that the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker took the Cleveland Browns lightly when they faced off in the opener last month. It's just that after spending most of his eight-year career helping the Steelers turn their longtime rivals into little more than fodder for the win column, Timmons has grown used to a certain level of dominance.
That notion shifted when Pittsburgh needed every last second on the clock to escape with a 30-27 victory five weeks ago, a game in which the Steelers squandered a 24-point halftime lead. Having watched Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer and an inexperienced running game push Pittsburgh's defense around for 30 minutes - then see Cleveland do the same last weekend in a thrilling comeback win over Tennessee - Timmons became a convert.
The Browns (2-2), yes the Browns, look like they're for real heading into Sunday's rematch in Cleveland.
''I think they're serious this year,'' Timmons said. ''You can't take them lightly.''
No chance of that. If anything, Cleveland provided the Steelers (3-2) with a much-needed wakeup call after using an uptempo no-huddle in the second half. Pittsburgh rarely looked ready as the Browns reeled off 24 unanswered points behind unheralded rookie running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. Cleveland averaged 6.3 yards per carry while piling up 191 yards on the ground to nearly pull off a stunning upset even with hyped rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel spending the entire afternoon on the sideline.
''They have a running game now,'' said Timmons, who is 11-2 against the Browns. That's the change for us. As we played them before they never really got a 100 yards rushing on us. So now that they did that, that's the game changer so we have to really be on our Ps and Qs.''
Cleveland's approach forced the Steelers to make some minor adjustments to the way they get the defensive calls on the field. Rather than rely on Timmons to relay the information, the secondary often looks to the sideline for hand signals to find out where to line up.
''LT can't tell everybody at the same time, he's got a job to do too,'' cornerback Brice McCain. ''We sometimes know before he tells us.''
The early returns have been promising. The Steelers have limited opponents to 165 yards rushing and 3.6 yards per carry over their last three games. Yet those numbers come with a few caveats. The Panthers played without starting running back DeAngelo Williams. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were working Doug Martin back into the mix following an injury and the Jacksonville Jaguars are, well, Jacksonville.
''It's only been a couple weeks,'' linebacker Arthur Moats said. ''We know we have to get better.''
On both sides of the ball. While Pittsburgh managed to escape north Florida with a 17-9 win over the Jaguars last Sunday, the Steelers needed a fourth quarter interception return for a score by Brice McCain to provide the win.
It's not exactly the way to build momentum. Pittsburgh has alternated wins and losses through the first five weeks, looking competitive at times and confounding at others. The Steelers have been inconsistent. It needs to change if they want to make any kind of run for a playoff berth.
Scoring more points would help. Pittsburgh is fourth in the NFL in total offense but only 18th in points scored, averaging 22.4 points a game, a good field goal less than Cleveland's average of 25.8. Finishing drives has been a problem. The Steelers are only converting 43 percent of their trips inside an opponent's 20 into touchdowns. Pittsburgh only did it once in four trips against the Jaguars, kicking a field goal to end one possession and having Roethlisberger fumble to end another before ending the game with knee downs at the Jacksonville 18.
''We just need to continue to work, correct and rectify it and make sure it's a strength for us,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ''I know when we are playing well we are putting points on the board with seven.''
NOTES: Rookie LB Ryan Shazier will test his sprained right knee in practice this week. Shazier hasn't played since injuring the knee in a victory over Carolina three weeks ago. ... S Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) will also practice in a limited capacity. ... Tomlin defended the decision to make a short pass to Antonio Brown in the waning moments last week, a pass that extended his streak of games with at least five receptions and 50 yards receiving to an NFL-record 21. ''We had a low-risk play that had an opportunity to get the ball in his hands and we wanted to assist him in that,'' Tomin said. ''I think the guys were just as excited about doing that for him as he was.''
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