INDIANAPOLIS — Freddie Kitchens revealed about two weeks ago he would like to keep three quarterbacks on the Browns' 53-man roster, but the coach also said he didn't "want to crown" Garrett Gilbert as a player worthy of a spot "just yet."

Well, Gilbert presented a strong case for himself with a stellar performance Saturday in the Browns' 21-18 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the second preseason game for both teams.

With the Browns coming off two joint practices with the Colts, Kitchens chose to rest quarterback Baker Mayfield and several other starters throughout the exhibition game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And Gilbert took advantage of his opportunity to start. He played all six of the offense's series in the first half and went 13-of-19 passing for 151 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. His passer rating was 127.3, and he took one sack.

"I'm sure we'll go back and find plenty of stuff that I need to correct, but it certainly feels good to go put something on tape," said Gilbert, who signed with the Browns in April shortly after the Alliance of American Football folded and thereby ended his tenure as the starting quarterback of the Orlando Apollos. "It's a lot of fun to have some success, put some drives together and get into the end zone a couple times."

Kitchens gave backup quarterback Drew Stanton the evening off. Stanton is healthy. Kitchens explained he simply wanted to give Gilbert a long look in a live setting. Gilbert said he was told he would start on Friday.

"I was very happy with Garrett," Kitchens said. "He came in, had control of the huddle, got the guys lined up, made the plays he was supposed to make and eliminated the mistakes. So I thought he performed very well.

"I like that he's getting better every time he goes out there. I like that it doesn't seem too big for him. I like that he makes good decisions. I like that he's able to get coached. It's kind of a misnomer — these quarterbacks, they kind of get coached pretty hard, so I like the fact that he can get coached hard. And I like the fact that he just keeps his head down and works."

Now there are legitimate questions about whether Gilbert can push Stanton for the No. 2 quarterback role. Stanton will be difficult to unseat. Kitchens and Stanton spent years together in Arizona, and the coaching staff trusts Stanton, who's 11-6 as an NFL starter.

When asked if Stanton's name is written in stone as the No. 2 QB, Kitchens replied, "Well, I mean, everything is open right now. But Drew is our backup quarterback. Drew brings a lot of value to our team, so, yeah, Drew is our backup quarterback."

An NFL journeyman, Gilbert has appeared in just one regular-season game, the Carolina Panthers' 2018 finale in which he went 2-of-3 passing for 40 yards. Still, with two exhibition games left, Gilbert has time to rally for a promotion.

"Where I fall on the depth chart, any of that stuff, that doesn’t matter to me," Gilbert said. "It’s all about improving every day, and then from there, the chips will fall where they will."

A friend of Mayfield who hails from the same high school, Lake Travis in Austin, Texas, Gilbert helped the Browns seize a 7-0 lead when he connected with wide receiver Jaelen Strong for a 4-yard touchdown with 1:52 left in the first quarter. Strong was wide open in the back of the end zone when he caught the pass to cap the seven-play, 64-yard drive, and Greg Joseph made the extra point. The Gilbert-Strong TD came against the Colts' starting defense, which played throughout the first quarter.

"Garrett played real good," Strong said. "I think he kept us under control when things got a little intense. He came in the huddle confident. He came in the huddle and took charge and led us down the field a few times."

The Colts' starting offense produced a 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive against a mix of Browns starters and backups. The Browns' No. 1 defense played two series.

Quarterback Jacoby Brissett, filling in for the injured Andrew Luck, threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Eric Ebron against the coverage of rookie safety Sheldrick Redwine, allowing the Colts to tie the score 7-7 with 10:28 left in the second quarter. That was the third and final series for the Colts' first-string offense.

Gilbert and Co. answered. His 32-yard pass to undrafted rookie receiver D.J. Montgomery over cornerback Marvell Tell occurred one play before his 6-yard touchdown pass to running back D'Ernest Johnson. Rookie fifth-round draft pick Austin Seibert made the extra point to give the Browns a 14-7 lead with 7:02 left in the second quarter.

"It was just like practice. Everything came easy to [Gilbert]," receiver Rashard Higgins said.

The score of 14-7 held at halftime because the Colts' Cole Hedlund and Joseph missed field goals from 51 and 53 yards, respectively, in the final 37 seconds of the second quarter.

With 13:05 left in the third quarter, undrafted rookie quarterback David Blough replaced Gilbert when the Browns took possession for the first time in the second half.

The Browns extended their lead to 21-7 when receiver Derrick Willies caught Blough's 4-yard touchdown pass while being covered by cornerback Jalen Collins. Willies, who didn't play on offense until the second half, rebounded from a dropped pass with the TD. Seibert made the extra point with 9:09 remaining in the third quarter.

Blough finished 7-of-12 passing for 74 yards and a touchdown without an interception. He posted a passer rating of 104.2 and took one sack.

The Colts threatened after Hedlund made a 41-yard field goal with 1:55 left in the third quarter and quarterback Chad Kelly threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ross Travis with Redwine covering and then a successful two-point conversion pass to tight end Hale Hentges. With those scores, the Colts cut their deficit to 21-18 with 13:11 left.

Seibert blew a chance to give the Browns a six-point lead when he missed a 52-yard field goal wide left with 2:52 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The Colts then marched to the Browns' 9, where they went for it on fourth-and-1 because nobody wants overtime in an exhibition game. Undrafted rookie linebacker Willie Harvey batted down Kelly's pass for a turnover on downs with 35 seconds left, sealing the Browns' second win in as many preseason games.

 

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.