By Richie Lay – Los Angeles Rams Writer
This week three encounter between two of the leagues most talent-rich teams has the potential to be a firecracker. The Rams have had a solid, if unflashy, start to the season: after grinding out a tough road win in week one, followed up by a return to LA, where they picked apart a Saints team who were without their starting quarterback for most of the game, eventually running out comfortable winners 27-9.
In week three, the Rams travel to Cleveland and the #DAWGPOUND to face the oh-so-fancied-in-the-offseason Browns, who picked up their first win on Monday night, coincidentally, also against a New York Jets team who were without their starting quarterback.
Even when considering the Rams were playing against a Drew Brees-less offense, the defense looked organized and powerful on Sunday. The secondary held one of the leagues top wide receivers Michael Thomas to just 89 yards, whilst some excellent run blocking meant that star running back Alvin Kamara managed a measly 45 yards rushing from 13 carries.
The Rams defense will need to keep up that level of performance this weekend if they are to stop the Browns’ star-studded offense that includes playmakers such as Odell Beckham Jr., Nick Chubb, and Jarvis Landry. Whilst the Browns have yet to flourish offensively this year, that kind of talent cannot be ignored and the Rams will need to play to the same intensity and caliber as they did in week two; if the Cleveland offense suddenly clicks they have a very, very, high ceiling which will be hard to stop.
However, if the LA secondary play as they did last week, watching them against Baker Mayfield and Co is a very mouth-watering proposition.
One potential falling point is that defensive tackle Aaron Donald – widely considered to be the best player in the NFL – has been “limited” in practice this week after suffering a back injury in Sunday’s game against the Saints. Donald is expected to return to action against the Browns, and such is the importance of Donald’s pass rush to the Rams defense that it is an issue worth monitoring over the next few days.
Getting to and pressuring the quarterback will be vital (as it is always is) to stop Mayfield sending the cannons downfield that we all know he has the ability to do, and a fully fit Donald could decimate an already weak Browns offensive line that could also be without starting guard Joel Bitonio – who is struggling with an abdomen injury.
One area that the Rams will certainly have to improve on this week is pass protection. With two new starters on the offensive line this year, quarterback Jared Goff hasn’t had the same quality of protection from the big men in the first two games as he did last season.
Last week, we saw defensive end Cam Jordan cause the Rams a lot of trouble rushing off the edge; if the o-line isn’t much improved this week then Goff could face all kinds of problems from a Cleveland defensive line comprised of Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson and the NFL’s sack leader: Myles Garrett, who already has five sacks from the first two weeks. We have seen in the past that if a team can get to Goff early and put pressure on him, he tends to lose his rhythm and does not play anywhere near the standard he can when he has time in the pocket.
Keeping the Cleveland line at bay is an absolute must if the Rams are to have any chance of moving the ball downfield, and their offensive linemen will have to vastly improve on the past two weeks if they are to succeed here.
Sean McVay’s men will also look to continue the strong early-season form of their wide receiver trio of Cooper Kupp, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods. This is an area where I feel that the Rams could agitate the Browns, who so far this season have looked shaky in the line-backer and secondary groups – and they head into this game with injury concerns surrounding both cornerbacks; Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams; as well as stud line-backer Christian Kirksey.
All three Rams wide receivers are effective in the slot; none more so than Kupp, last week’s man of the moment. With Sean McVay’s scheming, these three should create space in the slot which will be an invaluable weapon to the Rams offense, who will need to move the ball quickly in order to limit the destructive potential of Cleveland’s aforementioned d-line.
In my opinion, judging what kind of team the Browns will be this season based on their first two games is a difficult test. They were competitive for three quarters against a Tennessee team who ran away with it in the final quarter (after three Mayfield interceptions, might I add). In week two, they were hardly threatened by a depleted Jets team, but still didn’t look completely comfortable on offense, despite winning by a healthy margin. I do feel that I know what kind of team the Rams will be: solid defensively, with the potential to be the same offensive powerhouse as they were last year, as long as they can rectify some shaky offensive line play and gradually get Todd Gurley involved in more snaps.
If the Rams can stave off the Browns terrifying pass rush, control the passing plays on defense as they did last week, and take advantage of the weakness in the oppositions secondary, they should run out winners against a Cleveland side that is yet to combine all of their talents to create a truly special team. I
f Cleveland can get to Goff with some urgency and Mayfield starts making the plays that we all know he and his companions Beckham Jr. and Landry are capable of, we will have a real game on our hands and they certainly have enough quality on their roster to be a 2-1 team by Monday morning.
Rams to win a tight and thrilling encounter 30-27.