On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns (2-4) take on the St. Louis Rams (2-3) in Week 7 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Josh McCown struggled against the Denver Broncos pass rush last week, turning the ball over three times and not being able to push a drive into the red zone in the first half despite consistently getting the ball to midfield. With enough reps, though, McCown nearly led another late-game comeback, showing that he's never quite of things. McCown faces an equally-impressive pass rush this week, but in a way, seeing a good pass-rushing team two weeks in a row should allow offensive coordinator John DeFilippo to see what did and didn't work for McCown and implement changes to play to his strengths this week.
The Rams made the big decision at quarterback this offseason to ship Sam Bradford to the Eagles and take Nick Foles in return. Leading into Week 7, the trade really hasn't panned out for either team. Foles was a gem in 2013 for Philly, throwing 27 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions. This year, in 5 games, he's thrown for just 6 touchdowns while throwing 5 interceptions and losing 2 fumbles. His completion percentage is also a career-low 57.4%, and over the past four games, he's only passing for 165 yards per game. Foles has not found a rhythm on a team that is lacking talent at the receiver position, and he's also under pressure more than any other quarterback in the NFL.
We have to be careful not to overrate the Rams' running back situation, but I'm giving rookie Todd Gurley the benefit of the doubt because of his past two games. The Rams are built to be a running team, but in Week 1, Benny Cunningham and the rest of the team averaged just 2.9 YPC on 26 attempts. In Week 2, Tavon Austin was the team's leading rusher, but they only ran the ball 13 times as a team all game.
In Week 3, Gurley's debut, the leading rusher was again a wide receiver. Tre Mason had 9 carries for 16 yards and Gurley had 6 carries for 9 yards. In Gurley's second and third games, he's exploded: 19 carries for 146 yards, and then 30 carries for 159 yards. That includes two 50+ yard runs. Everyone is fearful that Gurley is going to torch the Browns' worst-ranked run defense, but I think he'll, at best, do what everyone else has done against the team. The big difference for St. Louis is that they don't have a good passing game or a consistent offense to keep attacking you all game long.
Cleveland got their first taste of Robert Turbin last week, but have to be careful about falling into the trap again of spreading the reps too thin between three running backs. I think the team should focus on Turbin being a short-yardage back on second-and-short or goal line packages, with Duke Johnson playing in third-down passing situations and Isaiah Crowell remaining the starting back. Look for Josh McCown to try to get the running backs more involved in the passing game this week to negate some of the Rams' pass rush.
The Rams might have the most lackluster group of receivers in the NFL. Tavon Austin is a nice niche player to have, but he's not going to be known for running precision routes, which should play into the advantage of the Browns' cornerbacks this week if they stick with their man coverage scheme. Austin has 16 catches for 144 yards on the year. Tight end Jared Cook is a guy I once was dying for Cleveland to sign, but he's been a disappointment in St. Louis, logging 15 catches for 169 yards on the year. Kenny Britt (11 catches, 183 yards) has been held without a catch over the past two weeks as Stedman Bailey (9 catches, 161 yards) has been a little more involved.
Tight end Gary Barnidge could become the first receiver in Browns history to record a touchdown catch in five straight games. Given the fact that Barnidge has become Josh McCown's go-to-guy (at the expense of Brian Hartline), I'd bank on Barnidge accomplishing that feat. Earlier, I talked about offensive coordinator John DeFilippo wanting to make adjustments to negate the Rams' pass rush after seeing how McCown did against the Broncos' pass rush last week. One of the things the team needs to incorporate this week is the bubble screen again, which they attempted twice last week but needed to go back to.
At some point this year, DeFilippo could also consider attempting a wide receiver end-around, something he's held off running all year. It might not be wise to pull it off this week, though, since it's a play that St. Louis' defense probably sees in practice often.
|OL||The Browns' offensive line is really tough to judge when you just look at the stats. Week-by-week, they are getting better, both in pass protection and in run blocking. The tight end blocking puts a damper on the offensive line's work, though, and then the one area the Browns' offensive line has struggled with in pass protection are stunts.
While Cleveland has faced those minor struggles, the Rams lack experience on their offensive line. Right guard Rodger Saffold, the team's most experienced lineman, suffered a shoulder injury before the bye week and is now out for the season. He'll be replaced by veteran Garrett Reynolds. At left tackle, Greg Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2014 draft, hasn't looked anything like a player worthy of that selection. Our Rams affiliate had some praise for left guard Jamon Brown, a third-round pick, and the rest of the line is rounded out by center Tim Barnes and right tackle Rob Havenstein.
|DL||St. Louis has invested a ton of high draft picks in their defensive line, and it shows. Defensive end Chris Long will miss this week's game, but the Rams have the depth to overcome his loss, including the team's other starter, Robert Quinn. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is one of the best interior defenders in football, and you can expect him to play about 80% of the snaps each week. Michael Brockers and Nick Fairley both play at the other defensive tackle spot. Between Quinn, Donald, Brockers, and Fairley, the four of them have nine sacks on the year.
Browns nose tackle Danny Shelton saw his fewest snaps of the season last week. This week in practice, Shelton was limited all week working through a couple of injuries, but the coaching staff insists he'll be fine. Desmond Bryant's workload returned to normal last week, giving the team a stable presence on one edge of the line. As a whole unit, the defensive linemen need to improve upon their niche. For example, PFF told us that John Hughes ranks 49th of 50th in the run-stopping 3-4 defensive ends and has only had 1 stop on 89 run snaps. The problem with that is that defending the run is supposed to be Hughes' specialty.
|LB||The Browns' coaching staff really hopes to get Craig Robertson back at inside linebacker this week so they can go back to taking some responsibility off of Christian Kirksey. Karlos Dansby is coming off his best game of the season, but you can't expect him to start picking off passes every other week. Cleveland still needs to find a way to get their outside linebackers in a groove. I'm still a proponent of jump-starting Barkevious Mingo's playing time, but even in an overtime game last week, he only played 20 snaps.
The Rams' starting linebackers are Akeem Ayers and Mark Barron on the outside, and James Laurinatitis in the middle. I was very surprised to see Barron, the former first-round safety, listed as a starting outside linebacker. With former starter Alec Ogletree out until December, Barron has switched positions. He did well in the role against the Packers two weeks ago, but it'll be interesting to see how that pans out long-term. Laurinatitis has historically been a sure-tackler, but as an overall unit, this group doesn't overwhelm.
|DB||Joe Haden is out this week, which means Pierre Desir will get his third start of the season. Tashaun Gipson is expected to be absent another week after being listed as doubtful, so Jordan Poyer will start for the second straight week. Tramon Williams has been one of the team's more consistent defenders, but has had the bad break of being beaten by two downfield plays in two straight weeks on perfect throws. The presence of K'Waun Williams as the nickelback helps shore up the losses of the other two starters.
The Rams' starting cornerbacks are Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins, with Lamarcus Joyner as the team's nickelback. Johnson and Jenkins have played well together. Jenkins has a history of trying to jump passes for pick sixes. It makes him susceptible to double moves, but he might take a chance after seeing what Aqib Talib did to McCown last week. The Rams' starting safeties are Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald. St. Louis doesn't have an overwhelming secondary, but they are a very stable group. If either Gipson or Haden were available this week, the ranking would have been "even."
Greg Zuerlein is the Rams' kicker. He began the season 7-of-7, but was 1-of-4 against the Packers before the bye. All three of those misses were on attempts from beyond 50 yards, including one attempt from 63 yards. He has the leg to connect on those long kicks, so if Cleveland stops the Rams around the 35 yard line, expect Jeff Fisher to send his kicker out there. Travis Coons remains perfect on the year, and inside a dome, they might actually allow him to attempt a 50+ yarder if the opportunity presents itself.
Rams punter Johnny Hekker is 13th in the NFL in both average (47.0) and net average (41.0). I thought Andy Lee hasn't been as sharp the past couple of games, but remember that I set the bar higher for him. Cleveland could really use the game of field position to get punts inside the 10 or even inside the 5 yard line this week.
RB Benny Cunningham will return kickoffs for the Rams, and CB Justin Gilbert should continue doing so for the Browns. The real guys to watch are on punt return with WR Tavon Austin and WR Travis Benjamin. Austin has 7 returns for 121 yards (17.3 average) and 1 touchdown. Taking away his 75-yard return, it's 6 returns for 46 yards (7.6 average). Benjamin has 17 returns for 250 yards (14.7 average). Taking away his 78-yard return, he has 16 returns for 172 yards (10.75 average).
RB Todd Gurley looks like an impressive young back, but St. Louis' running game was awful for their first three games and then Gurley caught fire with a couple of big runs before the team's bye week. While that is scary against a 32nd-ranked run defense, I don't think the Rams can consistently run the ball that way. If Gurley breaks off a 40-yard run, I don't trust QB Nick Foles and the rest of that offense to deliver the goods the remainder of the way. This is a Rams team that has averaged under 9 points per game against the Redskins, Steelers, and Packers.
St. Louis has a tough defensive interior and a good pass rush on the edge, but they aren't dominant at stopping the run and if Cleveland gets back to the strategy of throwing quick passes to RB Duke Johnson and the team's smaller receivers, they can win the battle against St. Louis' linebackers and negate the Rams' pass rush. I'll go with the Browns jumping out to an early lead for once, but the Rams trying to fight their way back into it with one good drive on the ground before Cleveland puts their stamp on the game for good.
Cleveland Browns 27, St. Louis Rams 17
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