Written by J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
Sunday Night Football in Cleveland for the first time since 2008. The ‘216’ is going to be electric in the hours leading up to and during this highly anticipated prime time matchup between the defending NFC Champs and the new-look Cleveland Browns. Baker Mayfield and the rest of this young, electrifying team welcome the LA Rams to town looking to build on a 20 point victory over the New York Jets. While the Rams aim to continue their perfect season and get back to the Super Bowl for the 2nd straight year in HC Sean McVay’s 3rd season at the helm. This matchup features superstars on both sides of the ball, making it a must-watch for any and all football fans.
This Browns offense comes into the game still struggling to find their identity through 2 weeks of the season. Baker Mayfield hasn’t looked as advertised behind a porous offensive line and no true rhythm to the offense has been seen yet. To get things rolling, Freddie Kitchens will need to get the ground game going early and often, which has not been the case to start the season. RB Nick Chubb was a huge part of Cleveland’s success last year down the stretch and helped make the play-action passing game much more effective, taking pressure off Mayfield. With the injury to RT Chris Hubbard who was seen in a walking boot earlier this week nursing a foot injury, Kitchens can’t depend on his offensive line to hold blocks very long for Mayfield, as an already below-average unit will have their hands full going up against the best player in the NFL, Aaron Donald. Donald (back) appeared on the injury report but did practice late this week, he will be ready to go. The run game and getting the ball out of Mayfield’s hand quickly should be a big part of Freddie Kitchens game plan Sunday night. Cleveland will be without their 3rd year TE David Njoku after suffering a concussion and a broken wrist in Monday’s win over the Jets. Njoku has been placed on IR but will be eligible to return later this season at some point when healthy. In the meantime, the Browns will look to rely on a group effort from Demetrius Harris, Pharaoh Brown, and Ricky Seals-Jones during Njoku’s absence. Hubbard (foot), as mentioned earlier, and Rashard Higgins (knee) are both listed as questionable. If Higgins can’t go, the Browns will once again turn to Damion Ratley, the former 6th round pick, to man the outside receiver position opposite Beckham. Backup RB/returner Dontrell Hilliard was taken off the injury report this week and looks ready to resume his change of pace duties Sunday after missing Week 2 with a concussion.
The injuries have piled up for Cleveland this week on the defensive side of the ball as well. Along with David Njoku, LB Christian Kirksey has been placed on IR with a chest injury, meaning the Browns will insert preseason standout Mack Wilson into the starting lineup for the foreseeable future. DC Steve Wilks could be without 2 of his starting linebackers Sunday as Adarius Taylor is listed as questionable (ankle). Late in the week starting CB’s Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams both popped up on the injury report with hamstring injuries. Ward has officially been ruled out and the Browns are optimistic about Greedy’s chances of playing. Other notable injuries include FS Damarious Randall who has been ruled out with a concussion and SS Morgan Burnett is questionable with a quad injury. With Randall out for the 2nd straight game, look for Eric Murray and Jermaine Whitehead to see more playing time. With many key injuries to this defense, Cleveland is tucked into a tough spot facing a lethal Rams offense putting up an average of 28.5 points per game through 2 weeks. The #2 ranked offense from 2018 in terms of yards per game, has weapons all across the field and an intelligent head coach designing and calling the plays. After suffering a torn ACL last year in Week 10, WR Cooper Kupp is leading the Rams through 2 weeks in receptions and receiving yards. Last year after Kupp went down, the Rams offense took a slight step back in terms of production. In Weeks 1-10 last year before Kupp went down, the Rams put up an average of 448 total yards per game. From Week 11 through the Super Bowl, they only averaged 372.7 yards per game. The league leader in touchdowns over the past 2 years, Todd Gurley, has been somewhat limited this year with a nagging knee injury that may never truly go away. Limited or not, Gurley is still one of the most dangerous RB’s in the NFL with the ball in his hands. Eating into Gurley’s touches this year in hopes of keeping him fresh has been backup RB Malcolm Brown. The split between total touches so far has Gurley leading the charge 34-18. After Sunday’s win over the Saints, McVay was quoted talking about the Rams backfield situation, “It’s going to be something that’s by game, and really, it’s more in the flow and the feel (of the game).” With such a lethal offense, McVay doesn’t have to rely on Gurley for 20+ touches a game as he has in the past, I’d expect a similar usage between the two going forward. The Rams will be without TE Tyler Higbee (chest) for this matchup after he signed a 4 year/$31M extension before the season cementing himself as their starter over Gerald Everett. The former 2nd round pick Everett will get the start in his place against a Browns defense very prone to the tight end position. Even more news on the injury front, C Austin Blythe is listed as questionable and will be a gametime decision with an ankle injury. If Blythe is unavailable, this is a huge opportunity for a fierce Browns front 4 to have a statement game going up against a relatively weak Rams interior offensive line after also losing starting guard Roger Saffold this offseason.
It’s never fun to see all these injuries piling up for both sides so early on in the season, as this matchup is littered with NFL superstars all over the field. But the final result may come down to roster depth. We know Mack Wilson excels in coverage but can he step in for Kirksey and slow down the Rams rushing attack? Can a safety group comprised of Eric Murray, Morgan Burnett and Jermaine Whitehead hold down the back end of this defense? Can Greedy Williams take the #1 corner role and minimize mistakes against a talented Rams receiving core? Freddie Kitchens and the Cleveland Browns have a tall task ahead and look to prove themselves in front of a national audience.