“Of course it’s going to motivate us,” DeCastro continued, via cleveland.com. “What are you thinking? It’s just not smart.”
The message on the shirt was a reference to a brawl that broke out between the Browns and Steelers at the end of their previous game, a Cleveland win on Nov. 14 that was marred by its star defensive player, Myles Garrett, hitting Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph on the head with the latter’s helmet. Garrett, who was suspended indefinitely, contended that Rudolph used a racial slur, an accusation the quarterback denied.
After images went viral of Kitchens wearing the “Pittsburgh started it” shirt on Friday — his 45th birthday — the Browns said in a statement (via ESPN) that his daughters gave it to him “as a joke.” The team added that Kitchens sported the garment while taking his daughters to a movie and that the coach “understands it’s not a good look.”
Possibly adding to discontent in Pittsburgh over the shirt was that the movie Kitchens went to see was reportedly “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The film features Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh native who broadcast his iconic “Mister Rogers” programs from a studio in that city.
“My daughters wanted me to wear the shirt, and I’d wear it again,” Kitchens said after the game. “I put a jacket on. I covered it up. I took a picture with a fan. That was as simple as that.
“The T-shirt didn’t cause us to give up 40-yard passes,” he continued. “We were ready to play. That’s the only thing people need to be concerned about. We were ready to play.”
The Browns appeared ready to notch a much-needed win by scoring the game’s first 10 points, but the Steelers went on a 20-0 run and held on for a seven-point victory. That improved Pittsburgh to 7-5, allowing the team to stay in position for an AFC playoff berth, while Cleveland fell to 5-7 and now has an extremely precarious path to the postseason.
The standings alone made for high stakes between the two divisional rivals, but the recent melee added a notable subplot. Heading into Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on Sunday, players from both sides wore garments that reflected their mutual ill will, including Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry, whose sweatshirt touted the phrase “Revenge."
Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree’s “Free Pouncey” shirt paid homage to teammate Maurkice Pouncey, who was suspended two games for his role in the brawl. Another Pittsburgh player wore a shirt with a cartoon depicting a youngster in a Steelers helmet urinating on a Browns player.
Asked after the game about Kitchens’s shirt, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said, “I don’t really have a comment on that. It’s just a T-shirt. I’ve done much worse.”
Mayfield suffered a bruised hand during the game, and briefly left to get medical attention in the Browns’ locker room, but he told reporters that he expected to play next week. That added injury to the insult of the loss, which Cleveland failed to avert despite appearing to have a major disparity in offensive talent.
In addition to Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft who was named to last season’s all-rookie team, the Browns enjoyed the services of two star wide receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and a pair of standout running backs, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. By contrast, the Steelers had long since lost stalwart quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending injury, recently benched Rudolph in favor of unheralded third-stringer Devlin “Duck” Hodges and took the field Sunday without a pair of injured Pro Bowlers, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner.
Pittsburgh had a difference-making edge Sunday, though, in its offensive line, which benefited from not having to block Garrett and allowed Hodges to be sacked just once and hit four times. Mayfield’s line gave up seven quarterback hits and he was sacked five times.
DeCastro wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman to claim afterward that Kitchens’s shirt did nothing to help Cleveland’s cause.
“I know that our coach never would have done anything like that,” declared Pittsburgh guard Ramon Foster. “Why throw gas? When you do something like that, you throw your players in harm’s way. He’s not on the field."
“You just don’t see that from upper management,” Foster added. “We’ve all got to grow as professionals, in some sense.”