By Bill Bender
Published on Sep. 11, 2017
CLEVELAND — Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer received his unofficial AFC North introduction in the second quarter Sunday. He shuffled into the middle of the field before launching into a slide a few yards later. That's when Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier planted his helmet in Kizer's shoulder and drove it into the ground.
The hit drew an unnecessary roughness penalty, but it was an informal salute. Kizer can expect more in Week 2 at Baltimore. He's going to get hit, but Cleveland can't let him get hit this much.
That's part of the double-edged view of Kizer's debut in the Browns' 21-18 loss to the Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium. Kizer (20 of 32, 222 yards, 2 TDs, INT) played well enough that Browns fans should be excited to see more considering he took division-favorite Pittsburgh to the wire. Kizer, however, took seven sacks and several more hits like the one Shazier delivered. If Kizer can stay upright, the Browns might have something here down the road.
Kizer after the game showed the poise that helped him win the starting job over Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler. He stood at his postgame press conference in blue blazer, jeans and a beige T-shirt. He didn't over-react to the line of questioning about how those hits added up. He responded in the same tone.
"Back in college, I was running a power running game from the quarterback position so I was used to taking hits," Kizer said. "Obviously, now at this level, it is my job to be out there for my teammates, and in order to do so, you have to try to limit as many hits as possible."
There's no need to anoint Kizer as the guy — future, franchise or any other superlative — after one game. The Browns are starting their second trip through the quarterback alphabet since 1999, and Kizer, i.e. No. 27, showed enough in his debut that Cleveland should be comfortable monitoring his progress. Browns coach Hue Jackson made it clear Kizer earned the right to be in this position.
Kizer is indeed Cleveland's guy. He recovered from a disastrous first possession that led to a third-and-23 and a blocked punt for a Steelers touchdown. Only this wasn't the same old Browns quarterback. Kizer converted a pair of third-downs — one with a pass to Duke Johnson and another on a sneak — to set up his first career TD on a one-yard run that tied the game.
Kizer vaulted into a half-scissor kick in the end zone and energized the stadium. The Browns, however, wouldn't convert another third down without the help of a penalty. Cleveland finished 3 of 12 on third down, and that's the key for any rookie quarterback.
"He made some plays," Jackson said. "He did some good things on third down. That is the money down for a quarterback. He just didn't make enough plays on third down. There were some other opportunities there."
Kizer's second half featured an ill-advised interception on a corner route, but he also enjoyed his best sequence of the day late in the fourth quarter. A 29-yard seam route to Ricardo Louis. A 22-yard checkdown to Isaiah Crowell. Kizer's TD pass to Corey Coleman on fourth down trimmed the lead to three with 3:36 remaining.
There was true excitement in the stands, even if a familiar conclusion unfolded.
Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger didn't give the ball back. A 38-yard pass to Antonio Brown sealed another Steelers victory and improved Big Ben's record against Cleveland to 21-2. But this time, the Browns weren't left with a feeling of hopelessness. Roethlisberger, who also has taken quite a few hits, offered encouragement to Kizer.
"We're both from Northwest Ohio, both wear No. 7," Roethlisberger said. "I thought he played a great game. He did some things against a great defense that gets after it, but I told him afterward, 'What an awesome start.'"
Kizer didn't get a chance at the end of game, but he prepared as if that would happen. Cleveland fans should be prepared for what's next. This doesn't feel like the false hope given by former first-round picks such as Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel. Couch presided over a 43-0 loss to Pittsburgh in the Browns' return to Cleveland in 1999. Weeden threw four interception in his debut in 2012.
This Week 1 felt different even though it came in a loss. Browns fans have heard that speech 27 times, but perhaps Kizer is that player. Who else played the Steelers this close right away? That's why Jackson emphasized protecting the second-round pick. The defense did its part. Now the protection and running game must follow.
"He took some pretty good shots, too," Jackson said. "That is why he is 230 pounds. He has to take care of himself a little bit better. We know that. He can't keep taking hits like that. Like I said, from his first game, I thought he did some real good things."
Kizer's press conference closed with a question about whether he'll reflect on how close the Browns were to winning this opener.
He deflected again, in the same calm demeanor.
"The competitor in me probably will never think that way," he said. "I know that we have got to show who we are and the progress that we are making. That is being able to go against what is known as one of the better teams in our conference consistently that way. Now, we need to go out there and make sure that the lulls that we talked about earlier are eliminated and that we are driving that ball down as much as we can."