CLEVELAND — Le’Veon Bell ended his contract holdout and came back last week. He was mostly missing from the Steelers’ opener.

Bell looked rusty and hardly like one of the NFL’s best players on Sunday, gaining just 32 yards as Pittsburgh turned to its defense and a late Ben Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown connection to hold off the Cleveland Browns 21-18.

The 25-year-old Bell refused to report to training camp this summer because of a contract squabble with Pittsburgh’s front office. Faced with a steep fine, Bell, who became the first player to average 100 yards rushing and 50 receiving per game last season, reported less than a week before the opener and signed his $12.1 million franchise tag after failing to come to agreement on a long-term deal.

There was accord that he wasn’t very effective against the Browns.

“I don’t think I was on the field as much as usual,” Bell said, “so obviously it’s not going to be the same numbers, but we won the game and that’s the biggest thing about it.”

Bell was bottled up by Cleveland’s improved, swarming defense. He gained only 17 yards on his first nine carries before ripping off a 15-yarder with 2:28 left, and the Steelers were able to run out the clock after the Browns burned their last timeout challenging Brown’s 38-yard reception.

Bell also had a 12-yard run called back by a holding penalty. He had three catches for 15 yards.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin defended Bell’s lackluster performance, laying the blame on Pittsburgh being in long-yardage situations.

The Steelers had just 35 yards rushing.

“We were out of sync because we were behind the chains,” Tomlin said. “When you get highly penalized and you are working in first-and-15 or second-and-15, you’re not going to have a great running game. You can write whatever story you want to write about — him missing the preseason and all of that. The bottom line is that we got highly penalized and it put us behind the chains and minimized the running game. That’s what happened.”

Bell expects things to get better as the season progresses.

“It’s game on, so obviously everything is not going to be clicking how it would be if it was mid-season form. Week 1 is just the stepping stone.”

KIZER SHINES: Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer had a productive and positive NFL debut.

The second-round pick from Notre Dame shook off seven sacks and threw a touchdown pass with 3:36 left that pulled the Browns within three. In all, he completed 20 of 30 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown. He also scored on a 1-yard sneak.

“I like DeShone,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “I like the feel of him on the sideline with me. I love our communication. He did some good things. There are some opportunities that he is going to be the first to tell you he wish he had back. That is going to happen to a young quarterback, but this guy gave us a chance.”

Kizer showed poise in the pocket and never looked rattled. His biggest mistake came when he made an ill-advised throw in the third quarter that was intercepted.

Jackson felt there were plays where Kizer held onto the ball too long, but some of that can be blamed on receivers not getting open.

“Obviously, there are some drives that we are proud of and that we are headed in the right direction on, but there were also some lulls within the game that we have to try to cut back on,” said Kizer, the 27th QB to start for Cleveland since 1999.

Beyond the sacks, Jackson is worried about Kizer taking too many hits. On one scramble, he was drilled by linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was flagged for roughness.

“He’s got to take care of himself a little bit better,” Jackson said. “We all know that. He can’t keep taking hits like that.”

WATT A START: Steelers rookie linebacker T.J. Watt set the bar high.

J.J. Watt’s younger brother recorded two sacks and had an interception in his NFL debut, and he wanted more.

“We played well,” he said of Pittsburgh’s defense, which recorded seven sacks. “We felt like we were in the backfield all the time, but we have to finish plays. We had a few sacks left on the table.”

Kizer praised Watt for his pick.

“An athletic defensive end/linebacker hybrid went up and got one on me,” he said. “These guys who are stepping out there, who I am playing against, are quite athletic and he goes up and makes a good play on the ball.”

INJURIES

Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt injured his left biceps in the first half and didn’t return. Coach Mike Tomlin said Tuitt would undergo more tests and the team would provide an update on Tuesday.

Tuitt, who signed a new contract on Saturday through the 2022 season, has 11 ½ sacks in three seasons.

ODDS AND ENDS: Roethlisberger moved past Fran Tarkenton into ninth place in NFL history with 47,077 yards passing. … Browns 10-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas extended his consecutive-snaps streak to 9,996, believed to be the longest streak in league history. Thomas has started all 161 career games and not missed an offensive play since 2007.


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