CLEVELAND — DeShone Kizer threw a touchdown pass and ran for another. He led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive when the Browns needed it. He ran the no-huddle offense efficiently. He took big hit after big hit and kept popping back up.
Kizer didn’t play like the 21-year-old rookie he is in his NFL debut. That had coach Hue Jackson feeling good about his decision to pick Kizer as his starter, and even better about the future.
“I think this guy is going to be a really good player, but he has to keep getting better,” Jackson said Sunday after the season-opening 21-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Kizer was 20-for-30 (67 percent) for 222 yards, a touchdown, an interception and an 85.7 rating. He was sacked seven times for 42 yards and rushed five times for 17 yards.
“This young man, I told you guys, he earned the right to be the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns,” Jackson said. “I think you guys saw that today. Not a lot of rookies can go out there against Pittsburgh and do some of the things he did. He just has to keep going.”
Receiver Corey Coleman caught Kizer’s first NFL touchdown on a 3-yard slant on fourth-and-2 with 3:36 left. They hooked up five times for 53 yards, team highs.
“He did a great job,” Coleman said. “It was his first time playing in a real football game and he handled it like a true professional. It can only get better.”
Kizer, the No. 52 pick out of Notre Dame, led a 12-play, 68-yard drive in the first quarter to tie the game at 7. He sneaked in from the 1 and celebrated with a high leap in the end zone.
“It was awesome,” he said of the touchdown. “A little energy afterwards is also good for the team.”
Kizer tied Jameis Winston as the third-youngest quarterback to start an opener since 1963, trailing only Drew Bledsoe and Matthew Stafford, He said he felt comfortable and was prepared for everything the Steelers threw at him.
He admitted he held the ball too long on the sacks.
“Our offensive line was up there holding up tight. I am holding onto the ball a little too long at times,” he said. “One of the biggest things that I learned today is when there is an opportunity to get the ball to the running back in the check-down, you have got to put it in his hands because he goes and makes plays.”
Left tackle Joe Thomas said that’s part of the learning curve.
“That’s what all rookie quarterbacks do. It’s the hardest part for a young quarterback to understand,” Thomas said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to live to see another down.”
The sacks weren’t the biggest hits the 6-foot-4, 233-pound Kizer absorbed. Linebacker Ryan Shazier drilled him in the side with his helmet after Kizer had slid, drawing a 15-yard penalty. Later Kizer didn’t slide and was rocked by Shazier and defensive end Tyson Alualu.
Kizer kept getting up and said he’s completely healthy.
“Back in college, I was running a power running game from the quarterback position so I was used to taking hits,” he 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.”
His teammates loved the toughness.
“I’ve always known he had the grit. I played against him in college and he did the same things,” said rookie tight end David Njoku, who had two catches for 20 yards. “Run the ball, lower his shoulder as a quarterback. That’s always impressive to see.”
Kizer didn’t get a ton of help from the rest of the offense. Isaiah Crowell rushed for only 33 yards on 17 attempts, a 1.9 average. Receiver Kenny Britt dropped a perfect pass that killed a drive. Receiver Kasen Williams ran out of bounds for an incompletion on a deep ball at the 7-yard line, although Kizer fell on the sword and said the throw should’ve been better.
Kizer also made a critical rookie mistake that hurt the chances for an upset.
On first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 29-yard line with 1:24 left in the third quarter and the Browns trailing 21-10, Kizer tried to force the ball to Williams on the sideline. The throw wasn’t close, and rookie linebacker T.J. Watt made a leaping interception.
“An athletic, defensive end/linebacker hybrid went up and got one on me,” Kizer said. “I am trying to put the ball over top of him. 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.”
“He knows that is a ball you can’t throw, not in that situation,” Jackson said. “I have had a lot of young quarterbacks make that choice and decision.”
Thomas was impressed by how Kizer bounced back from the interception to lead a touchdown drive.
“Those guys get paid, too,” Thomas said. “They’re All-Pros. They’re NFL players just like you are. So they’re going to make some plays and you’ve got to be able to put that behind you and go out there the very next play, play with confidence and be able to lead drives, and I think he showed that today. So certainly I think the future is bright for DeShone.”
Kizer also got an endorsement from Steelers counterpart Ben Roethlisberger.
“He did some great things against a defense that gets after it, but I told him afterword, ‘what an awesome start,’” he said “I know it’s not getting a win, but just to play the way he did, I was proud of him.”
So was Jackson.
“This guy gave us a chance,” he said. “He put the team in position to give us an opportunity to make something special happen. We didn’t finish it the way we wanted to, but I like the first game with him. His first live, big game, I thought he handled himself extremely well.”