CLEVELAND — You only get one chance to make a first impression, and Paul Ernster’s was a doozy.
Ernster dropped the snap on his first punt for the Browns exactly 61 seconds into their 34-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, on Sunday, setting in motion a comical series of events.
After mishandling the ball deep in Cleveland territory, Ernster escaped the oncoming Steelers rush, only to shank a 15-yard punt. Pittsburgh got the ball at the Browns’ 22-yard line and scored the game’s first touchdown four plays later.
“I’ve never dropped a ball before, but that’s what happened,’’ said Ernster, a temporary replacement for the injured Dave Zastudil. “The snap (from Ryan Pontbriand) was right there and I saw it. As a punter, you can’t make excuses. It was my fault, no one else’s.’’
Making the play even more psychologically crippling, Cleveland somehow committed four penalties during Ernster’s adventure.
Jerome Harrison and David McMillan both were flagged for defensive holding, Antwan Peek was called for lining up in an illegal formation, and multiple players were downfield ineligibly by the time the ball was punted.
The mistake-prone play established the tone for everything that followed in the season opener. Ernster, though, rebounded to have a decent game. The ex-Denver punter averaged 40.2 yards on his other six kicks and finished with a solid net average of 35.6.
“It’s tough to come in and sign on Saturday, then play Sunday,’’ Ernster said. “There is a lot of timing involved and if you don’t have the reps, it’s hard. If they have me punt next week, I’ll definitely give you a better showing.’’
Zastudil, who remains on Cleveland’s 53-man roster, had his strained lower back wrapped and on ice after the game. He called his status day-to-day and hopes to play next week against Cincinnati.
The Bay Village native cautioned, though, that he did not punt the ball between Monday and Saturday, but felt an identical “pulling sensation’’ after taking four days off.
“It was the same motion I hurt myself in, and it felt the same,’’ Zastudil said. “Hopefully, it will feel better soon.’"
Safety Sean Jones forced a fumble by Steelers running back Willie Parker, which Peek recovered.
• Linebackers Peek and Chaun Thompson shared the club’s lone quarterback sack.
“It’s unfortunate how hard we worked this preseason and in the offseason for the first game to turn out the way it did,’’ Peek said. “I didn’t expect that at all.’’
• Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. had game highs of four receptions and 83 yards.
• Coach Romeo Crennel failed on a pair of instant replay challenges in the first half.
• D’Qwell Jackson made seven tackles, while Orpheus Roye, Andra Davis and Jones had six apiece.
• Joshua Cribbs did not record a punt return, but did make one fair catch. The special teams ace averaged 24.5 yards on four kickoff returns.
Browns fullback Lawrence Vickers scored his first NFL touchdown on a 1-yard pass from Derek Anderson midway through the third quarter. It made the score 24-7.
“I knew I was going to be wide open,’’ Vickers said. “The ball was right there, and the rest was up to me.’’
The second-year pro had a surprisingly active day with two receptions for 7 yards and two rushes for 8 more. Vickers carried the ball just three times and made six receptions his entire rookie season.
Out of action
Cleveland cornerback Daven Holly suffered a concussion in the third quarter when he was nailed from behind by Ward. The downfield hit earned Ward a personal foul and a likely fine from the league.
Head to head
The Browns still lead the regular-season series 55-54, but the Steelers are 8-1 at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
• Mike Tomlin became the first Steelers coach to win his first game against the Browns. His eight predecessors all took losses over the past 57 years.
“We wanted to come out of the box strong and take some of the pressure off him,’’ Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said.
A crowd of 73,089 was in attendance, extending the sellout streak at Cleveland Browns Stadium to 65 games.
• Browns great Gene Hickerson was presented with his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring at halftime.
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.