Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for 850 ESPN 850 Cleveland.
Four downs on Browns (1-1) v. Los Angeles Rams (2-0)
First down: Survival of fittest.
The Browns’ goal against the overmatched Jets was to grind out a win and escape as healthy as possible. Well, score it one out of two. The 23-3 win was ugly, to be sure. And costly. Lost for extended periods of time were tight end David Njoku (concussion, wrist) and linebacker Christian Kirksey (chest). Safety Damarious Randall (concussion) never made it out of protocol. Safety Morgan Burnett (quad) didn’t practice all week. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward (hamstring) and Greedy Williams (hamstring) missed the last two days and were termed questionable. Also, right tackle Chris Hubbard (foot) didn’t practice all week. So, the Browns will take on the NFC Champions in their first Sunday night prime-time game since 2008 with as few as four starters out and as many as seven. This is the type of injury list that teams usually deal with in November, not September. Freddie Kitchens wanted adversity. So deal with it.
Second down: Let’s get ready to rumble.
In the near corner is Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the two-time NFL defensive player-of-the-year, 2018 NFL sack champion, and universally acclaimed “best player in football.” In the far corner is Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, 2019 NFL leader in sacks (five) and penalties (five), and aspiring “best player in football.” They won’t be on the field together, of course, but this up-close match-up of Donald and Garrett should give everyone an idea of how wide, or slim, is the gap between the two quarterback-wreckers. If Garrett wants to dethrone Donald, then this would be the stage on which to outplay him. Donald has zero sacks through two games, but has pre-occupied offensive blocking schemes enough to allow for edge rushers Clay Matthews and Dante Fowler to get off to fast starts. Garrett’s five sacks have been almost overshadowed by his five penalties, which include two offsides and three roughing calls, plus one quarterback knocked out for the season. All of which has resulted in Garrett defending his honor against questions about being a dirty player. (He is far from that.) Meanwhile, Browns coaches are more agitated by Garrett’s offsides penalties.
Third down: Not feeling dangerous.
Baker Mayfield’s two starts have been meh. He is 25th among quarterbacks in completion percentage, tied for 18th in touchdowns, 27th in passer rating, tied for 16th in completions, and tied for second in most interceptions. The result is the Browns’ offense has been nothing special. Mayfield is holding the ball longer than a year ago, and missing receivers high and wide with alarming frequency. This week, Mayfield said he has to play better. Freddie Kitchens said he has to do a better job of calling the right plays for Mayfield. There are other theories that the Browns’ offense is sputtering because of offensive line problems, lack of continuity in preseason, deficiencies at tight end, Rashard Higgins’ absence because of an injury, the addition of Todd Monken as offensive coordinator, the challenge for Kitchens of calling plays while serving as head coach, Iran, the Federal Reserve Board, yada yada yada …
Fourth down: Very special teams.
For years, the Rams special teams coordinated by John Fassel have been considered among the league’s finest. They have a solid long-distance kicker in Greg Zuerlein, a dangerous punter in Johnny Hekker who has a career passer rating of 102.1 in career throws on fake punts, and an explosive returner in JoJo Natson, of University of Akron, who is 5-7 and 153 pounds – 153 pounds! The Rams under Fassel have been noted for gimmick plays and Browns coordinator Mike Priefer said on Thursday he was preparing for this game against the Rams since the spring. “Not that it guarantees success, but at least our guys understand where we are coming when we are talking about it this week,” Priefer said. The Rams were 3 of 5 on converting fake punts last year. One of the times they missed was against Priefer’s Minnesota Vikings. Meanwhile, the Browns are greatly improved under Priefer. Rookie punter Jamie Gillan won AFC special teams player of the week and kicker Austin Seibert made 3 of 3 field goals and 2 of 2 PATs against the Jets.
Prediction: Rams, 20-16.
My record: 1-1.