On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns’ play on Sunday Night Football for the first time since 2008 when they host the Los Angeles Rams. To help preview a few topics from the Rams’ perspective, we reached out to Joe McAtee from Turf Show Times and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: “Last year, the Rams’ run defense wasn’t the best. During the offseason, Pro Football Focus ranked them as the second-worst run defense in the NFL. It hasn’t been that bad through two games, but it is a small sample size. How would you assess the Rams’ run defense in 2019?”
Joe: “Not good! Yeah, the Rams struggled against the run last year finishing dead last in the NFL in yards allowed per carry. Advanced metrics weren’t much better as Football Outsiders ranked us 27th. The bottom line it wasn’t anywhere near good. The caveat though we have to note that, much like the lack of edge rushing in the passing defense, it didn’t stop the Rams from starting 8-0 and ultimately totaling 13 wins and making it to the Super Bowl.
There were some notable personnel changes. DL Ndamukong Suh, ILB Mark Barron and S Lamarcus Joyner all departed. The Rams have resorted to heavy rotation throughout the defense with a bevy of options though not ILB Micah Kiser as he was lost for the year in the preseason. Overall, there’s pretty much nowhere to go but up, but I’m not sure the Rams are committed to stopping the run as much as they are the pass. To this point, that approach hasn’t really hurt them in the win-loss column.”
Chris: “The Rams didn’t have a first round pick this year, but they drafted S Taylor Rapp in the second round. He doesn’t appear to be a starter, but through two games, he’s been playing about half of the snaps. How has the rookie performed, and what role has he been playing?”
Joe: “Oh man, he looks fantastic. He’s an incredibly smart player who lacks some of the physical measurables. That hurt his draft stock throughout the draft process, but in terms of play level he’s a real stud. He won’t get a ton of playing time yet as the Rams have John Johnson and Eric Weddle at safety though Weddle was knocked out of the season opener early on with a concussion and a nasty cut on his head. If Week 2 was any indication, Rapp’s got something of an overhang-type role that should allow him to play closer to the line and work zone spacing similar to the rover role the New England Patriots have for Patrick Chung.”
Chris: “Todd Gurley’s utilization during the postseason was a hot topic; tell us about his utilization to begin the 2019 season. Is Sean McVay using him as the workhorse, or is he managing his reps better?”
Joe: “Yeah, I think the workhorse days might have come to a close. The Rams have, using their words, put Gurley on a “load management plan”...which is to say he’s going to play less and likely run less. That was an inevitable outcome though once Gurley’s knee deteriorated after the (again, Rams’ words) “wear and tear” of last year.
Surprisingly, it’s been RB Malcolm Brown helping to spell Gurley. I say surprising because Brown joined the Rams in 2015 the same season as Gurley. So they could have protected Gurley by using Brown more at any point. I suppose there was little reason to prior to the injury, but it’s certainly a bit more retroactive than proactive.
What I don’t know is how much it might fluctuate week-to-week. If the Rams were perhaps hesitant to play Brown more without seeing how he’s perform in an expanded role, they might be more open to increasing his workload as he’s been fantastic.”
Chris: “Who is the strength and weakness of the Rams’ offensive line?”
Joe: “Coming off of Week 2, that’s hard to answer...but I think we’re still looking at things a bit from the preseason perspective or really the exit perspective coming out of 2018. The Rams have one of the best tackle duos in the NFL in LT Andrew Whitworth and RT Rob Havenstein, though Whit’s likely playing in his final professional season.
RG Austin Blythe took over for RG Jamon Brown when the latter had a two-game suspension for marijuana to start the year; Blythe played well enough to take over full-time. But the Rams let LG Rodger Saffold III hit free agency and head to the Tennessee Titans; they also waived C John Sullivan. That meant second-year Rams LG Joseph Noteboom and C Brian Allen were to be thrust into starting roles after barely playing at all in 2018.
I don’t know that I’d call them the weakness as much as the unknown. And perhaps that’s the weakness itself? Not knowing what to expect from the young guys in any given week? Across the five, Havenstein was easily the worst last Sunday, but New Orleans Saints EDGE Cameron Jordan has embarrassed plenty of linemen in his career. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hav responds with a strong outing in Week 3.”
Chris: “Tell us about one player on offense and one player on defense who Browns fans might not be familiar with, but who could make a nice contribution for this week’s game.”
Joe: “On offense, I’ll point to TE Gerald Everett. With TE Tyler Higbee dealing with a chest contusion that had him coughing up blood last weekend, Everett’s likely to be a more involved participant. He’s been in the background for a while as a second-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft with Higbee taking the lion’s share of the playing time and the Rams’ star receiving trio soaking up most of the passing targets.
On defense, I’ll note ILB Cory Littleton who was an absolute star in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers. He was quieter in Week 2 but still led the team in tackles. He’s not a ferocious linebacker, but he’s extremely athletic and makes splash plays frequently. For years, he was the Rams’ sparkplug in special teams, but he earned a spot on defense next to Barron last year. Now, he’s the primary ILB helping to work boundary-to-boundary.”
Thanks again to Joe for taking the time to answer my questions.