CLEVELAND — If not for a blocked punt for a Steelers touchdown to start the game. If not for Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown making a pair of miraculous catches. If not for a bad interception from rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer in the red zone.
If the offense had just made two or three more plays.
The Browns came close to pulling off the huge upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium but couldn’t complete the comeback and fell 21-18.
The Browns have lost 18 of 19 season openers since returning in 1999, including 13 straight. They’ve lost 31 of the last 35 against the Steelers.
But coach Hue Jackson, who’s 1-16 in his Cleveland career, was able to walk out of the stadium with a sense of optimism and a firm belief that wins will quickly come. His young team that’s picked to finish at or near the bottom of the league took a perennial playoff team and Super Bowl contender to the wire.
“I feel good about today. It is not a moral victory — I’m not saying that — but I watched our football team fight and play,” Jackson said. “There is grit, there is toughness.”
“We were with them the whole time,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “There is no doubt in my mind that we can go out there and win that ballgame.”
The defense continued its strong play from the preseason — even without No. 1 pick Myles Garrett, who’s out with a high ankle sprain — and will be relied upon heavily this season, but just as encouraging was the debut of Kizer. He went 20-for-30 for 222 yards, a touchdown, an interception and an 85.7 rating. He also had a 1-yard touchdown on a sneak and celebrated with a leap in the middle of the end zone.
Kizer, the No. 52 pick out of Notre Dame, showed composure and toughness. He continued to get up after being sacked seven times and taking a couple of big hits on scrambles, including a brutal helmet shot from linebacker Ryan Shazier that drew a 15-yard penalty because Kizer had slid.
“He just bounced back up when I’m there with my hands over my head thinking he died,” right guard Kevin Zeitler said. “No, he bounced right back up and kept leading us. He’s definitely showing us the right things.
“He’s a competitor and in his first time as a true NFL quarterback he showed a lot of potential and I’m excited to see where it goes.”
The game couldn’t have started much worse. After an ugly first possession with an Isaiah Crowell run that lost 9 yards and a false start by Joe Thomas, Britton Colquitt’s punt was blocked by Tyler Matakevich into the end zone, where Anthony Chickillo recovered for a 7-0 lead 136 seconds into the season.
“It was huge,” Jackson said. “Obviously, that is kind of the difference in the game when you look back. The momentum switched. We had a miscommunication there and let a guy go free.”
The Browns settled down, led by a defense that limited the Steelers to 62 yards before a 91-yard touchdown drive late in the first half. The Steelers offense has stars everywhere but scored only two touchdowns, as running back Le’Veon Bell was held to 35 yards on 13 touches in his first action after sitting out training camp and the preseason.
The Browns closed to within 21-18 with 3:36 left on a Corey Coleman 3-yard catch from Kizer on fourth-and-2. Coleman, who led the team with five catches for 53 yards, took an illegal hit to the head from safety J.J. Wilcox but held on and was OK.
The defense needed to force its seventh punt to give Kizer a chance to complete the comeback, but Brown made his second remarkable catch.
He ran across the field from right to left, found a soft spot in the zone defense, then went up among three defenders to bring down a hanging jump ball from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had all day to throw. The 38-yard play came on second-and-12 from the 18-yard line and sealed the game, especially after Jackson wasted a timeout before challenging the catch and lost his last timeout when the ruling was upheld.
Cornerback Jason McCourty had his hand on the ball, but Brown came down with it to cap his 11-catch, 182-yard performance on 11 targets.
“That guy’s a helluva player,” McCourty said. “I’ve heard guys say he works his butt off every single day and it shows up on Sunday. He’s a playmaker. Down the stretch, you know the ball’s going to him. Whether he’s covered or not covered, he finds a way to make plays.”
Pittsburgh’s first touchdown came after Brown picked up 50 yards on a pass down the middle in which middle linebacker Joe Schobert tipped the ball right before it reached him. Brown didn’t flinch.
“Antonio Brown, with the number of critical plays he made, was big-time,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Roethlisberger went 24-for-36 for 263 yards, two touchdowns, an interception by safety Derrick Kindred and a 95.0 rating. He’s 21-2 against the Browns.
Tight end Jesse James caught both touchdowns, 4- and 2-yarders. The second score with 5:37 left in the third quarter and gave the Steelers a 21-10 lead. It came after Browns cornerback Jamar Taylor was penalized 41 yards for pass interference when he grabbed Brown’s arm on a deep throw down the sideline.
“They gave him the call,” Taylor said. “It is what it is. I thought it was good coverage.”
Kizer admitted to holding the ball too long on the seven sacks, but his biggest mistake was a third-quarter interception on first-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line. He mistakenly tried to fit a ball into new receiver Kasen Williams on a comeback down the sideline, but the throw was woefully short and didn’t get over leaping rookie linebacker T.J. Watt, who had two sacks and is the brother of Houston Texans star J.J.
Jackson lamented other missed opportunities by the offense. Williams needlessly drifted out of bounds for an incompletion on a deep pass down the right sideline in the second quarter, and receiver Kenny Britt had a drop in the fourth quarter.
But the ability of the league’s youngest roster to respond after the terrible start and late deficit inspired confidence.
“I like this football team,” Jackson said. “We will keep working. We will get the taste of victory, and that is what we are chasing.”