(Cooper Kupp photo courtesy Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)
This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.
Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.
When and Where: Sunday, Sept. 22, FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland, Ohio, 8:20 p.m. EDT.
Looking every bit the defending conference champions, the Los Angeles Rams look to further their early season success as they face a Cleveland Browns team playing its first Sunday night home game in 11 seasons.
If there was a hangover from their Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots, the Los Angeles Rams are either hiding it extremely well or have gotten over it all together. Los Angeles has shown an inability to win thanks to its offense or its defense in the first two games of the season, with the defending NFC West champion setting the pace in what is shaping up to be an extremely competitive division along with fellow unbeatens Seattle and San Francisco.
The Rams won their NFC rematch with the New Orleans Saints 27-9 last Sunday, knocking quarterback Drew Brees out of the game in the first quarter when defensive lineman Aaron Donald’s hand hit the Saints quarterback’s hand on the follow through of a pass. The tone and complexion of the game changed as Los Angeles was able to contain backup Teddy Bridgewater and limit New Orleans to three field goals on the eight possessions he led.
Sean McVay’s team broke open the game with two touchdowns in a 4:39 span late in the third quarter, with Todd Gurley scoring from four yards and Jared Goff hooking up with Brandin Cooks on a 2-yard scoring toss around a 3-and-out forced by the defense. Both Gurley and Goff were efficient – Gurley had 63 yards on 16 carries while Goff completed 19 of 28 passes for 283 yards and a touchdown.
The Browns broke through in the win column with Monday night’s 23-3 stifling of the New York Jets on the road. Cleveland had little trouble with a New York team starting backup quarterback Trevor Siemian with Sam Darnold sidelined, and defensive end Myles Garrett knocked him out of the game with a hit in the second quarter that resulted in an ankle injury.
From there, the Browns defense simply contained do-everything back Le’Veon Bell as Garrett finished with three of the team’s four sacks. Despite the fact Baker Mayfield threw for 325 yards and hooked up with Odell Beckham Jr. on a career-best 89-yard touchdown catch-and-run, Cleveland’s offense had trouble moving the ball consistently and went just 4 for 13 on third down.
Still, Freddie Kitchens’ team heads into its first home game on national television since 2008 with plenty of momentum – which the Browns will need as they face one of the league’s best teams.
Rams in Review
Perhaps being a year older is being a year wiser for the Rams, who have veered more towards effective than flashy in starting 2-0 for the second straight year. Some of that can be attributed to the return of wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who leads the team with 12 catches for 166 yards after missing the final eight games of last season with a knee injury.
Kupp had five catches for 120 yards against the Saints, including one of 66 yards early in the fourth quarter that set up Goff’s one-yard sneak for Los Angeles’ final touchdown, but his presence also creates a vanilla pre-snap look that allowed McVay to jumble his offensive formations that prevents defenses from making audible switches of their own.
Gurley has also shown no ill-effects from the knee injury that slowed him through the latter parts of 2018 and the postseason, totaling 160 yards and averaging 5.3 yards per carry thus far. McVay also has made it a point to lessen his workload by incorporating backup Malcolm Brown into the offense regularly, and the fifth-year back has chipped in 90 yards while also getting 5.3 per carry.
Los Angeles’ run defense tightened significantly in Week 2 after struggling to contain Christian McCaffrey, keeping Alvin Kamara under wraps and limiting the Saints to 57 rushing yards on 20 carries. The Rams allowed only one run of 10 or more yards versus New Orleans after being gashed for five by the Panthers.
Browns in Review
The Browns are still adjusting to the weight of having actual expectations for the first time in over a decade, and that is most apparent on the offensive side of the ball. No one is questioning Mayfield’s talents or abilities because he has an abundance of both. But it is the impatience and desire of making every play a big-yardage play that has proven challenging for the second-year quarterback – an understandable fault that lessens only with more game experience.
There was plenty of the good and bad as Mayfield had five completions of 25 or more yards, with perhaps his best one a 25-yard strike over the middle to Jarvis Landry that set up Austin Siebert’s 43-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to give Cleveland a 16-3 lead. Mayfield also was picked off once – his fourth interception – and sacked three times.
Beckham finished with 161 receiving yards in his New York City homecoming following his offseason trade from the Giants to the Browns. Aside from needing to switch his visor on Cleveland’s first possession, there was little drama to the wide receiver’s game – he provided the highlight of the night with his jaw-dropping one-handed catch on the sideline for a 33-yard gain that set up the Browns’ first field goal.
The defense played well, but the defense should have played well considering most of the game was played against a third-string quarterback who had never thrown a pass in an NFL game prior to his entry. Cleveland did not allow the Jets to get into plus-yardage passing until midway through the third quarter, and there was never a point where the defense faced game pressure.
Rams run offense vs. Browns run defense
The Rams have been effective on the ground offensively, with McVay doing a solid job early managing Gurley’s workload by integrating Malcolm Brown into the offense. That said, Gurley has been hitting holes effectively and averaging 5.33 yards per carry and showing no ill-effects from the knee injury that slowed him late last season and in the playoffs.
If Goff continues to split the carries between Gurley and Brown between a 3:2 and 2:1 ratio, it could go a long way to keeping the star back healthy. The Rams offensive line has done an excellent job clearing holes, with McVay singling out Jamil Demby for seamlessly stepping in when Austin Blythe got hurt.
“There’s always going to be a couple things, whether you’re a guy that’s played a bunch of football or not that you can correct,” McVay said of Demby to the Rams’ official website. “You could see the game wasn’t too big for him.”
With tight end Tyler Higbee ruled out, there may be some subtle play-call changes in the run game with Gerald Everett expected to get the bulk of the snaps. It may also result in more bunch formations with Everett and Kupp lined up together to keep the Browns defense guessing.
The Browns run defense is still a work in progress to a degree. It was difficult to get a gage on their week-to-week improvement Monday night considering the Jets used their backups at quarterback, which allowed Cleveland’s front seven (and eight at times) to key on Le’Veon Bell, whom they held to 3.2 yards per carry and 68 overall.
Gurley presents a different challenge in terms of running style since he is also a dual threat out of the backfield with pass-catching abilities. Gurley is more of a straight-line, downhill runner, which means making contact early to prevent him from reaching top speed.
Joe Schobert will be very busy, especially with fellow linebacker Christian Kirksey being put on injured reserve during the week with a chest injury.
“Obviously, you never want to see a teammate go down, a good friend go down, somebody you rely on right next to you in your position group getting hurt, especially with what he has been through the past year, but we have young guys that are going to need to step up,” Schobert said of Kirksey. “They have a lot talent and they have the ability to do so. I am excited to see how they do on the field on Sunday.”
Rams pass offense vs. Browns pass defense
Let us take a moment to appreciate Cooper Kupp. The Rams offense was still effective after he was lost midway through last season to a torn ACL, but Kupp’s size — he’s 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds — and versatility make him a distinctive player in McVay’s scheme because he is essentially an offensive cloak of versatility.
Kupp allows McVay to call multiple play types from similar personnel packages, including that aforementioned bunch formation in which he lines up next to the tight end since he is capable of sealing the edge when Gurley finds the hole wide of the tackle or chip-blocking out of it to catch a short pass.
And as the above clip shows, Kupp is also more difficult to take down than it appears — especially since he has mastered throwing a stiff arm after the catch like Gurley does during a run.
It’s a lot easier to stiff arm a defensive back than a linebacker,” receivers coach Eric Yarber said of his charges to the Los Angeles Times, “so they make it part of their arsenal.”
While Kupp does a little bit of everything, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks continue to be reliable options capable of turning short gains into big ones. The Rams rank fifth in the league in percentage of passing yards after the catch, accounting for 52.9 percent of them. That success could prove pivotal against a Browns defense that has allowed 309 of its 449 passing yards after the catch — a league-worst 68.5 percent.
Cleveland’s banged-up secondary goes beyond Randall’s absence and Burnett being injured as cornerback Denzel Ward is also nursing an injury. Teams have already been going after Ward, going 6 for 11 for 78 yards and a touchdown on passes in his direction.
Given the Rams’ preference to work out of three-receiver sets, rookie cornerback Greedy Williams is almost certain to see more action than the first two games, possibly more action than the first two games combined. Opposing QBs have thrown only four times in his direction completing two for 45 yards.
The Browns’ success, though, will hinge mainly on whether Garrett can get to Goff. He had his way all Monday night against the Jets while recording three sacks and has 25.5 in 29 games since entering the NFL. His matchup this week is veteran left tackle Andre Whitworth, who is one of the league’s more athletic offensive linemen, and McVay is well-aware of Garrett’s disruptive skills.
“He has made a huge impact,” the Rams coach told The Athletic. “Even just watching when you have the game on in a TV setting, you just feel what an impact he makes on the game. He looks like what the No. 1 overall pick is supposed to look like, and he continues to get better as his career has progressed.”
Browns run offense vs. Rams run defense
While understandable that Mayfield is the first name that comes up when talking about the Browns offense, there is still a sense that Chubb has barely scratched the surface of his potential as he enters his second year as the featured running back.
Chubb earned his 62 yards Monday night playing against a game Jets defense that did well to disrupt the Browns’ offensive rhythm. There’s no arguing Chubb’s talent, but Browns offensive coordinator Todd Monken must do a better job balancing the play-calling in this game given Los Angeles’ offensive efficiency to keep the Rams’ offense off the field.
The second-year back has been at his best running to the left side, averaging 5.36 yards per carry in that direction on 14 rushes compared to 2.95 yards in any other direction. The added incentive of running away from star defensive lineman Aaron Donald should result in more carries for Chubb to the left and on the edge, and to a man on the Browns, everyone wants him to get more touches.
“We’ve got to get Nick going,” center JC Tretter told the team’s official website. “Nick’s a hell of a runner, brings a lot to the table, can do a little bit of everything. He’s a guy we look forward to blocking for. We look forward to getting opportunities to get him in space and get him running. We’ve seen the game-breaking potential of him in busting a long run. The two in Oakland last year always stand out to me.
“We know if we can give him daylight, he can go. We look forward to getting run plays called and letting him do his work.”
Much like the Browns run defense, it is difficult to ascertain how much of the Rams’ week-to-week improvement was them actually improving or playing against a second-string quarterback that afforded them the opportunity to bring an extra hat on the line of scrimmage.
Bottling up Alvin Kamara regardless of the method is still an impressive task, especially after the Rams had difficulties containing Christian McCaffrey in Week 1, and let Kamara break loose for only one run of more than 10 yards. Chubb looks to have a style that can be compared more to Gurley than Kamara or McCaffrey, but the challenge is still a strong one the Browns present.
And that is where Aaron Donald comes into play. He has yet to record a sack and has only one other tackle besides the clip above, but the reigning two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year more than carries his own weight by drawing double and triple-teams on nearly every snap. That has allowed linebackers Clay Matthews and Cory Littleton clear paths to the ball carrier.
“He is the best player in the league,” Browns guard Joel Bitonio said of Donald. “He is strong against the run. He is strong against the pass. He does everything well. People say coming out he was undersized slightly and things like that, but he has all of the power you need to play that position and all of the leverage you need.”
Browns pass offense vs. Rams pass defense
Even with Mayfield’s 325-yard effort Monday night and the 89-yard touchdown hook-up with Beckham, the impatience at times is still evident with the second-year quarterback. That is to be expected with any young signal-caller, but Mayfield’s tendency to look downfield more creates problems in terms of interceptions like Week 1 and sacks like Week 2.
A good portion of this is on Mayfield, who has admitted he needs to get rid of the ball quicker, but this should also be an adjustment Monken is making to call more plays where Mayfield’s reads and receiver routes run should be shorter.
Beckham’s catch-and-run touchdown is a perfect illustration of the trust that he and Mayfield will continue to develop over the course of the season because sometimes it is as simple as just throwing the ball and letting the receiver do the work.
“That is always something we look at, trying to get the ball in rhythm, quick-game rhythm throws,” Monken said about getting the ball out of Mayfield’s hand quicker. “Some of that comes with screen games, some of it comes in the RPO world, some of it comes in scheme and some of it comes in protection. It is all the above. Something we have to be better at.”
Though Donald has yet to record a sack, the constant attention he draws has allowed others to get home. Clay Matthews has shown he still has plenty to give after signing with the Rams as a free agent in the offseason and gets the added bonus of seeing his father inducted into the Browns ring of honor Monday night.
“Some of my fondest memories of him playing was him after victories bringing us on the field and allowing us to run around,” the younger Matthews told ESPN. “I remember stealing — well, I wouldn’t say stealing, but I remember asking — I think I got a pair of Eric Metcalf cleats back in the day. My mom said we’d come out with hands full of just used tape, mouthpieces, just stuff that was trash.”
One reason for Matthews’ success in getting to the quarterback is the Rams having a pair of quality cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and veteran Aqib Talib. Both have done a good job keeping opposing wide receivers in front of them, allowing 110 yards on 8 of 12 passes but not giving up a touchdown.
Where there is concern is in the middle of the field, since Littleton has not shown a consistent ability to shut down passing lanes. Opposing QBs are 14 for 21 for 124 yards throwing in his direction, with the 14 completions tied for the most against any defensive player.
Cleveland’s offense does not lend itself to shorter passes over the middle — Beckham’s average point of the catch is 9.4 yards while Landry’s is 9.7. That means Harris could have to chip block and be available for short passes if Mayfield is going to release the ball quicker.
The rest of the story
After an awful — by their standards — special teams performance in Week 1 in which Johnny Hekker had a punt blocked and Greg Zeuerlein missed a 41-yard field goal, both Rams specialists got back on track against the Saints. Hekker averaged 49.8 yards on four points from deep in his own territory and had a net of 41.3, while Zeuerlein had a couple of red zone chip shots for field goals.
Rams returner JoJo Natson has gotten off to a fast start this year, averaging 15.3 yards on four punt returns and getting at least 10 yards on three of them. Hekker remains a threat on the fake because of his passing ability, but he really hasn’t rounded into form and had a game that would result in a Masters-level dissertation by Bill Belichick.
Browns kicker Austin Seibert also righted himself after a rough Week 1 in which he missed a PAT, converting all three of his field goals — two of which were 43 yards or longer. Rookie Scottish punter Jamie Gillan excelled in the short game Monday night, putting five of his six kicks inside the opposing 20-yard line while allowing just one return for five yards.
This game will be a big test for Kitchens’ coaching acumen since McVay appears to be applying many lessons learned from the Rams’ Super Bowl loss into practice. Los Angeles has been a very calm and very efficient team thus far, and even in Cleveland’s win Monday night, one got the sense the Browns were still fighting themselves at times in terms of developing a rhythem, especially on the offensive end.
The atmosphere should be electric between Sunday Night Football returning to Cleveland after a decade-long absence and Matthews’ halftime ceremony. How long the Browns can ride that adrenaline rush could go a long way between winning and losing, but Kitchens’ team still needs to play smarter than it has the first two weeks — and that goes from on the field to play-calling and everything in between.
Final Thoughts and Suggested Picks
Once the emotional frenzy wears off, it is difficult to envision anything but a Rams victory in this game. The Browns have looked every bit the work in progress many should have seen them for as they integrate Beckham into the offense, figure out how to balance the offense, and just deal with the expectations of being an improved team from last season.
Cleveland’s defense looked good against the Jets on Monday night because it should have looked good playing against a second and third-string quarterback. The Browns looked ordinary defensively in Week 1 versus Tennessee, which takes on a more troubling look after Thursday night’s win by the Jaguars — who are playing with a backup QB as well.
The Rams have a proper offensive balance between the run and pass, depth in the running game to not overwork Gurley, and McVay’s offense in general will be a chore for Cleveland to stop. The Rams will present multiple looks at all three levels against the Browns’ defensive playmakers, and there is not much confidence beyond Garrett in getting the job done.
For the Browns, Mayfield and the offense must slow the game down and be content to hit singles. Cleveland has shown it can move the ball throwing quick-hitting bedrock passes to Beckham and Landry and should try to soften up the Rams corners with them before looking deep. And they have to get Chubb involved early and often.
If Cleveland can move the chains running the ball, it keeps the Rams offense off the field. That is their best path to victory since the defense might struggle to keep them off the scoreboard on back-to-back possessions consistently in this contest.
The Rams have been good with the number of late, covering in their last five games as favorites and going 6-1 in their last seven overall dating back to last season. They are also 5-1 ATS in their last six September games and 5-1 in their last six coming off an ATS win.
Being a home underdog is nothing new to the Browns, who are 5-11 in their last 16 games as home dogs between 3.5 to 10 points and 9-21 against the number overall in their last 30 home games.
The over feels like a bridge too far given Mayfield’s impatience and the quality of the Rams’ cornerbacks in this matchup, but it will make a push before falling one score short.
The over/under continues to be worth watching since it has plummeted since opening at 51 on Sept. 14 and has been testing 47 into the Sunday overnight. Having it stay below 49 does offer a chance at the over coming into play, but there is confidence in the Rams being able to sustain time-consuming drives to keep their defense fresh.
Three props we like:
Todd Gurley OVER 70.5 yards (-114)
Baker Mayfield -10.5 yards/OVER 519.5 passing yards (+210)
Kupp OVER 70.5 yards (-114)
The feeling is Gurley is going to find plenty of success in this game and get near 100 yards, if not go over it. With the expectation of the Rams leading throughout this contest, at some point Mayfield will abandon the run game and get his yards against a softer zone defense in the second half.
There was some thought to taking Brandin Cooks at OVER 69.5 yards since he has recorded 79 or more receiving yards in four of his last five games versus AFC teams, but the worry is Goff does not target him enough after throwing his way 10 times in the first two games. With only one more yard to get, Kupp has seen nearly twice as many passes and coming off a 120-yard effort.
There is some appeal to the first quarter over/under of 9.5 points — the Browns have totaled 10 points on their opening possessions, and while the Rams have just three first-quarter points, the expectation is Los Angeles will get two chances in the opening 15 minutes to score a touchdown and make the over hit.
The Rams feel worth the play at -1.5 points in the first half considering they have not given up a first-half touchdown yet. The over/under of 23 is a toss-up, and there is a temptation to thread the needle and take the under since Los Angeles has conceded six first-half points in its two wins.