BEREA, Ohio — Freddie Kitchens didn’t backtrack Monday from his comment that he would wear his “Pittsburgh started it” T-shirt again, but the coach lamented supplying the Steelers with some degree of fuel before they triumphed 20-13 over the Browns on Sunday at Heinz Field.
After the game, Steelers guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro verbally blasted Kitchens for donning the shirt that referenced the Nov. 14 fight between the AFC North foes. Kitchens wore the shirt, a gift from his family on his 45th birthday, to a movie theater on Friday night and posed for a photograph with a fan. The picture went viral online.
Foster said Kitchens put Browns players in harm’s way and he’s glad Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wouldn’t do the same. DeCastro called Kitchens’ decision “pretty stupid” and insisted he motivated the Steelers with “a lot of bulletin-board material.”
Was Kitchens disappointed he gave the Steelers something to be fired up about?
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “If that’s what they take as motivation, of course, I’m disappointed. I know Mike [Tomlin] very well. They’re motivated by more than just a T-shirt. We had a lot on the line there for that game, and I don’t think that T-shirt put them over the top. Now that’s being strictly honest for you.”
Kitchens is more disappointed about what he believes really put the Steelers (7-5) over the top and allowed them to reduce the playoff chances of the Browns (5-7) to 5.2 percent, according to the ESPN Football Power Index.
“I know this: We have a zero percent chance unless we take care of what we can take care of, and that’s just to go 1-0 this week,” Kitchens said with an eye toward Sunday’s home game against the Cincinnati Bengals (1-11).
Appearing fully capable of extending a three-game winning streak, the Browns led the Steelers 10-0 until late in the first half.
“Everybody felt we should have run away with this game,” said running back Kareem Hunt, whose 15-yard catch and run for a touchdown put the Browns ahead by two scores with 7:40 left in the second quarter.
But then the Steelers went on a 20-0 run. The Browns never fully recovered and saw their drought in Pittsburgh stretch to 16 games as the Steelers avenged their 21-7 loss from Nov. 14 in Cleveland.
“The first time we played them, we set the tone from an intensity standpoint and maintained it,” Kitchens said. “I think we did a good job yesterday of setting the tone from an intensity standpoint. We just didn’t maintain it. I’m not sure what happened to us from a mental standpoint, but just little things here and there started showing up. We didn’t make plays.”
Later, Kitchens introduced a theory for why his team’s collective mindset wasn’t what it should have been.
“We have a good, young core group that have not been in a lot of these situations,” Kitchens said. “I told these guys the other night this was the first time we had been in a playoff-type atmosphere, and it was truly a playoff-type atmosphere.”
Kitchens said the Browns couldn’t have been “any worse” in terms of playing complementary football in each of the game’s three phases.
“Opportunities presented themselves for us to take control of the game, and we didn’t do it for whatever reason offensively, defensively or special teams,” he said. “The next time we’re in that situation, I expect us to respond better. I expect to do a better job. I expect my coaches to do a better job.”
Whether Kitchens remains head coach for a second season is uncertain, though he insisted he’s not worried about his job.
“No, I’m not,” he said.
But the Browns failing to play with as much toughness as the Steelers throughout the game and make the proper adjustments is an indictment on the coaching staff as much as it is on the players.
Hunt agreed the Steelers increased their intensity after they fell behind.
“They definitely did, and we’ve got to learn to take it up a notch too if they do,” he said. “So we’ve just got to learn how to make the corrections, figure out what they’re doing to try to slow us down and we’ve got fix it. We’ve got to have an answer for it.”
As a rookie during the 2017 season, Hunt played in the postseason with the Kansas City Chiefs. He explained teams that make big plays in crucial situations find ways to deliver because they “never get down on themselves” during games.
Asked if the Browns possess the attitude, Hunt replied, “Sometimes I feel like we do. I don’t know. Sometimes we don’t.”
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