The third-year pro from Duke completed 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards, one touchdown, one interception and an 83.3 passer rating as the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated Cleveland 24-10. The quality performance came just six days after Lewis was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster.
“I thought Lewis played an outstanding game, considering the situation that he was thrust into this week,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “This is the first time he really had a chance to play, and I thought he showed up extremely well.
“Thad showed what I thought — and I knew — what he had in him, going back to the days when he was with St. Louis.”
Shurmur served as the Rams’ offensive coordinator during Lewis’ rookie season in 2010, then brought him to Cleveland on the eve of the 2011 regular-season opener.
His faith in Lewis proved to be justified, based on how well he played against the Steelers.
Lewis displayed a very quick release and sharp accuracy on mid-range patterns.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder also played with great confidence throughout, even after being picked off by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu in the first quarter.
“Thad has that South Florida swagger about him, so he stays composed in any type of situation, like you saw from him today,” Browns wide receiver Greg Little said. “Often times I joke about this, but playing at Duke prepared him well because he was the underdog quite a bit there.”
Little helped Lewis’ cause by hauling in his first NFL touchdown pass in the third quarter.
The 7-yard strike tied the score at 10, but proved to be the high point of the day for Cleveland.
Adding to the sting of losing the game, Lewis took a helmet-first hit from Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons with 1:22 left and was forced to leave the field.
Recently signed backup Josh Johnson took the Browns’ final snap, and he fumbled the ball after being sacked by Timmons.
Lewis was not permitted to speak with the media following the game, but had several jovial conversations with friends in front of his locker in full view of the press.
“It was great to see Thad come out and play the way he did today,” Browns tight end Benjamin Watson said. “He made the throws he needed to make and he had great command in the huddle. He also did a great job reading the defenses and the ball came out of his hands very quick.”
Cleveland running back Brandon Jackson added, “You guys saw the same thing that we did. Thad played like an NFL quarterback today.”
- Phil Dawson’s 51-yard field goal was the second longest in Heinz Field history. Steelers kicker Jeff Reed made a 52-yarder against Atlanta on Sept. 12, 2010, while San Diego’s Nick Novak and Baltimore’s Billy Cundiff also connected from 51. Dawson finished the season with a team-high 116 points and was 7-for-7 on field goal attempts of 50 or more yards.
- Lewis became the 18th quarterback to start for Cleveland since it returned to the NFL in 1999 — and the 17th to lose his debut. Jeff Garcia was the only winner on Sept. 12, 2004 against Baltimore.
- Joshua Cribbs (2,154 yards) surpassed Dennis Northcutt (2,149) as the Browns’ all-time punt return yardage leader.
Cribbs also became the fifth player in NFL history to reach 10,000 career kick return yards, finishing the game with 10,015.
- Safety Ray “Bubba” Ventrone’s 35-yard gain on a fake punt equaled Cleveland’s longest rush of the season. Wide receiver Travis Benjamin had a 35-yard carry on Sept. 9 against Philadelphia.
- The Browns joined the 1968 Buffalo Bills as the only teams in the Super Bowl era to have rookies lead them in passing (Brandon Weeden — 3,385), rushing (Trent Richardson — 950) and receiving yards (Josh Gordon — 805).
- Tackle Joe Thomas (96 games) and center Alex Mack (64 games) continued their career-encompassing streaks of never missing an offensive snap.
- Defensive end Jabaal Sheard had two sacks, giving him six over the final eight games and a team-high seven on the year.
- Gordon became the fourth Cleveland rookie to record a reception in all 16 games. The first three were wide receiver Webster Slaughter (1986), running back Eric Metcalf (1989) and wide receiver Kevin Johnson (1999).
Tempers flared throughout the game, as did post-whistle fisticuffs, much like they did in the glory days of the Browns/Steelers rivalry.
The most egregious examples saw Cleveland defensive tackle Phil Taylor blast Pittsburgh tackle Kelvin Beachum away from the ball — giving him a concussion — and Steelers guard Doug Legursky cutting the legs out from under Browns linebacker Craig Robertson after a play had been concluded.
“It was a pretty grimy game, and that’s the way we like it,” Legursky said. “At the end of the day, there are no hard feelings. As long as it stays between the whistles, it’s all in fun.”
Among the other incidents were Cleveland defensive linemen Billy Winn and Ahtyba Rubin picking up personal fouls on the same third-quarter play, and Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison delivering a late hit to Lewis on his touchdown to Little.
“They play dirty,” Taylor said. “We’re not going to play dirty just because they play dirty. We’re just playing football, but they get mad about it.
“If I get a call (from the NFL office), I get a call. I got it.”
Shurmur also was very upset about Timmons’ helmet-first hit to Lewis’ upper back, venting his anger to the officials as the clock ran out on the regular season.
“It is a rivalry for a reason, it didn’t start with one play today,” Robertson said. “You’ve had years of this type of game. It is the Steelers versus the Browns.”
- The contracts of 19 Browns expired at the end of the game, though the team can exercise options on a handful of their younger players. The free agents to-be are cornerback Sheldon Brown; kicker Dawson; linebackers Scott Fujita and Kaluka Maiava; punter Reggie Hodges; running backs Chris Ogbonnaya and Jackson; quarterback Johnson; wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi, Jordan Norwood and Cribbs; defensive ends Auston English, Juqua Parker and Emmanuel Stephens; tight ends Alex Smith and Watson; safety Ventrone; fullback Eddie Williams; and long snapper Christian Yount.
- NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi denied reports that the Browns have offered him a front office position during his morning television appearance. “I have not been contacted (by them),” the former Cleveland and Oakland personnel staffer said.
- San Diego Padres vice president Brent Stehlik has been hired as the Browns’ chief revenue officer, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Out of action
- The Browns’ inactives were quarterbacks Weeden (right shoulder sprain) and Colt McCoy (right shoulder sprain), running back Richardson (left ankle sprain), tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion), cornerback Brown (concussion), linebacker Adrian Moten and guard Jarrod Shaw. Brown had appeared in 175 straight games, dating back to the season opener of his rookie season in 2002, but was unable to get medically cleared to play in Pittsburgh. Gordon (ankle) was injured while fumbling away the football in the second quarter, while guard John Greco (knee) went down in the fourth.
- Not in uniform for the Steelers were linebacker Marshall McFadden (abdomen), quarterback Byron Leftwich, defensive ends Al Woods and Hebron Fangupo, nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu, cornerback Justin King and wide receiver David Gilreath. Defensive end Brett Keisel (right knee), guard David DeCastro (neck stinger), cornerback Keenan Lewis (right knee) and Beachum (concussion) exited with injuries.
- The Browns’ 1-7 road record matched the worst mark in the NFL this season. They also tied for the fifth-worst overall record at 5-11.
- A season-low crowd of 51,831 was in attendance at Heinz Field, but officially extended the Steelers’ home sellout streak to 310 games.
- The kickoff conditions were 28 degrees under cloudy skies. Pittsburgh wore its classic black tops and yellow pants, forcing Cleveland to sport its all-white uniforms.
- Steel City rapper Mac Miller and Pittsburgh rocker B.E. Taylor were part of the pregame festivities.
Contact Brian Dulik at email@example.com.