DETROIT — Quarterback DeShone Kizer played his best NFL game Sunday.
In it he sustained bruised ribs, made a giant blunder on the goal line and suffered another loss, 38-24 to the Detroit Lions.
It still qualified as significant progress for the strong-armed rookie out of Notre Dame.
Kizer hit a 38-yard go route on the first play, didn’t have an interception until the last of 37 attempts — receiver Ricardo Louis stopped running the route — and threw his first touchdown pass since Sept 24. He gave his team a chance to win, going 21-for-37 for 232 yards, a touchdown, an interception, a sack and a 73.3 rating.
Just as impressive was returning after taking a direct hit to the ribs from cornerback Quandre Diggs when rookie tight end David Njoku appeared to blow a protection. Kizer went to the locker room, had X-rays that came back negative and re-entered down 14 points with 4:28 left. The game was tied at 24 when he was hurt with six seconds left in the third quarter.
“Today I saw a guy who was competing and playing quarterback,” coach Hue Jackson said. “He has to make plays, whether it’s with his arm or his legs, and he did that.
“I saw a better version of him today. Is it perfect? No. Do we have things we need to continue to work on and fix? Yeah, but I see a guy who is starting to get it and that’s huge.”
Kizer said he wore a flak jacket all game and it might have prevented a broken rib or two. He said he’d never had a rib injury like this but was feeling OK.
“Good, good, a little sore,” he said. “You know, get back in, get a little treatment and be ready to go next week.”
Kizer, who fell to 0-8 as the starter, only started because a Jackson-driven trade attempt for Bengals backup AJ McCarron wasn’t completed in time at the trade deadline Oct. 31. Kizer, 21, played like someone with something to prove.
When he wasn’t making strong throws, he was avoiding sacks and running for first downs. He carried seven times for 57 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown.
“This is about not only my confidence, but earning the respect and trust of my teammates,” Kizer said. “And it’s obvious that in that bye week there was a potential acquisition of another quarterback and that puts a little pressure on me and with the relationship with my guys. And in order to prove to those guys that I’m the guy, I’m going to be here for a while, I have to have good play, and I think this was an opportunity for me to come out here and prove to those guys that no matter what happens, this is who I am and this is how I’m going to play. And I’m going to go out there and continue to get better every time I step on the field.”
Kizer was in control of the offense throughout but took too much control at the end of the first half. With 15 seconds left and no timeouts from the 2-yard line, he audibled to a sneak and was stopped for no gain. He didn’t have time for another play or to stop the clock with a spike, so the half ended without points.
Jackson took the blame, wouldn’t give specifics about the play and told Kizer he had addressed it. But left guard Joel Bitonio and tight end Seth DeValve confirmed the audible.
“As the quarterback and the leader of this offense, I’ve got to make sure I’m better down there,” Kizer said. “That’s a situation in which I need to be better in and making sure we’re scoring earlier and not even getting to that 15-second mark. We’ll look forward to re-evaluating every angle about that and getting better.”
The offense went backward with Cody Kessler in for two series and a play in place of Kizer, and the Lions scored two touchdowns for the win. Kizer led the final drive and converted three fourth downs before throwing the interception from the 4-yard line.
He was hurt by at least four drops from his receivers and tight ends, particularly Njoku, who failed to get both feet inbounds for a touchdown on the play before the failed sneak.
“I feel like he showed mental and physical toughness,” running back Isaiah Crowell said of Kizer. “The team needed him and he came back and gave it all he had.
“I wasn’t surprised, because I know how tough he is. I know how strong he is and how much he cares to help his team.”
Running back Duke Johnson saw Kizer take a big step before the bye with a turnover-free game against the Vikings. He saw more progress against the Lions.
“He’s getting a lot better,” Johnson said. “He’s growing throughout the year.”
Kizer remains motivated by being benched three times in the first half of the season.
“Every game so far I’ve felt pretty confident that I was getting better and this is — I was able to play the whole game, wasn’t benched, wasn’t in a situation in which I was turning the ball over earlier in the game,” he said. “Got a little rhythm going so, yeah, I think this was my best outing yet.”
Jackson has consistently defended his decisions to bench Kizer and said the moves helped make him mentally tougher.
“There’s a method to my madness. Trust me, I know you guys don’t think so,” Jackson said. “Everybody else would probably do it differently, but everybody is not me and how I go about this.
“He’s getting there and that’s what I’m looking for. He’s working at it and that’s all you can ask for, and I’m seeing the results of his work.”