Overview: It's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that this could be a Super Bowl preview, although the Cleveland Browns haven't exactly looked ''super" so far. Even so, we are only two games into the season and there is a lot of talent on the Browns roster. The Los Angeles Rams, meanwhile, are coming off a big win against their NFC arch-rival New Orleans Saints and sport a 2-0 record. They need a win to potentially keep pace with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, both of whom carry unbeaten records into play this weekend.
Rams Offense vs Cleveland Defense: This game could very well be decided in the trenches as both defensive fronts have top shelf talent and are going against O-lines that have some questions. For the Rams, it's looking like starting right guard Austin Blythe may not play with an ankle injury, although that isn't certain at this point. If he can't go, Jamil Demby will start at guard. Demby frankly played poorly in the preseason, but seemed to hold his own last week against the Saints. The Rams will likely need him to step up again, assuming Blythe is not available. Center Brian Allen and guard Joseph Noteboom, both new additions as starters on the Rams O-line this year, have been solid so far this season and will need to play well on Sunday night. It's looking like that Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who has been battling injury, will play on Sunday night. While the Browns defensive end Myles Garrett gets most of the headlines, tackles Sheldon Richardson and Ogunjobi are no walk in the park either. The Rams interior O-linemen have a big challenge facing them on Sunday night, and their success or lack thereof could be critical to the outcome of those.
Speaking of Myles Garrett, his battle with Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth is one of the better matchups you are likely to see all season. Whitworth is a perennial All-Pro candidate who seems to have lost little, if anything, at age 38. Garrett is a former top draft choice who notched 13.5 sacks last season, and we all know Rams Jared Goff is not the same quarterback under pressure as he is with time to throw the ball.
Of course, a lot of the Rams passing game works off of the play action pass, which in turn needs an effective running game to work. While Todd Gurley has been used somewhat less so far this season compared to past years, he has looked more or less like his old self. He's a dynamic playmaker who can take it to the house either running the ball or as a receiver. This year he's been effectively paired with Malcolm Brown, a tough, hard nosed back who fights for the last yard and breaks tackles. Brown was battling an ankle injury earlier this week, but was a full participant in practice on Thursday and Friday and is expected to play on Sunday night.
The Browns ability to pressure Goff is made even more critical by the fact they face some injury issues in the secondary. Safety Damarious Randall has been declared out for Sunday's game, and cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams and fellow safety Morgan Burnett are all questionable. It's likely that some or all of that trio will play, but may not be at top speed. That's bad news against one of the deepest groups of receivers in the league. Expect to see the Rams three top receivers on the field for the big majority of snaps. Brandin Cooks is a speedster who notched a big catch on a 54 yard pass against the Saints last week, Robert Woods is a great route runner and jack of all trades who catches pretty much everything thrown in his direction. Slot receiver Cooper Kupp is coming off a 120-yard game against the Saints, including a 67-yard catch that came just inches from being a touchdown.
The Rams will be missing starting tight end Tyler Higbee, but fellow tight-end Gerald Everett is a player who can make some big plays when needed.
The Browns really needs to pressure Goff and contain the running game, or this could get ugly. If they can do those things up front, they have a chance in this game.
Rams Defense vs Browns Offense: Once again, this battle may be decided up front. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is listed as ''questionable" with a back injury, but he's widely expected to play on Sunday night. While Donald hasn't notched a sack in the first two games, that's misleading. Both the CarolinaPanthers and Saints double and even triple teamed Donald, and he still spent a good deal of time in their backfields. Donald is widely considered the best defensive player in the NFL, and if he ends up not playing or isn't up to his usual dominating standards it will be bad news for the Rams
One thing all of the attention Donald draws has done is open things up for defensive tackle Micheal Brockers and linebackers Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews, all of whom have notched sacks in the Rams first two games. Cleveland is loaded with offensive stars, but their offensive line was likened to a ''lawnmower engine" in a high-performance sports car this week by NFL network commentator Maurice Jones-Drew this week. That's a problem for the Browns, especially assuming Aaron Donald plays and is anywhere near his usual self. The Browns face an even bigger challenge because tackle Kendall Lamm is not expected to play, and starting right tackle Chris Hubbard is rated as questionable.
Cleveland is loaded at wide receiver, perennial All-Pro Odell Beckham Jr is coming off a huge game against the New York Jets, and his old college team-mate Jarvis Landry (played together at LSU) isn't far behind Beckham in terms of talent and can easily take over a game if ignored. The Rams secondary has a big challenge on their hands, although unlike their counterparts on the other side, they come in healthy. Even so, if the Rams can't pressure the Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, they could get lit up. Corners Aquib Talib and Marcus Peters will have their hands full in this game, especially if Mayfield gets time to throw.
It's hard to know what to think of the Rams rush defense after two games. They got shredded by the Panthers Christian McCaffrey in the season opener before shutting down the Saints Alvin Kamara last week. They did have the luxury of loading up against the run after Drew Brees got hurt in the Saints game, which may have been a factor. The Browns won't have running back Kareem Hunt, who is serving an 8-game suspension, but they do have Nick Chubb, a former top draft pick who can take over a game all by himself. The question here again is the effectiveness of the Browns O-line.
Rams inside linebacker Corey Littleton has looked like an All-Pro so far this season. Not bad for a guy who wasn't even drafted coming out of college. Fellow inside linebacker Bryce Hager has been solid against the run. On passing downs he's often replaced by safety/linebacker Taylor Rapp, who would probably start for most NFL teams. Cleveland will be missing tight-end David Njoku, who is out with an broken wrist.
Cleveland has under-performed on offense so far this season, but two games is an awfully small sample size and their talent is certainly capable of lighting up the scoreboard. IF they can get a solid performance from their O-line--which is a big if--they could break out this week. Even so, we are going to check this box for the Rams.
Special Teams: So far the Rams special teams don't seem to have hit their stride. They were frankly not very good in the season opener against Carolina, somewhat better against the Saints. Punter Johnny Hekker in particular has been less than his usual stellar self. But the thinking here is that special teams coach John ''Bones" Fassell will have corrected whatever problems have been in play. The Rams generally have the best special teams in the NFL. They have been pretty average so far this season. That's due to change. If it doesn't on Sunday night, we could see an upset in this game.
Coaching: Sean McVay vs. Freddie Kitchens. Enough said.
Prediction: Even though we gave the Rams the edge across the board in this game, there are a lot of x-factors and question marks that could make this game much closer than it might appear,. A Browns win is by no means out of the question, make no mistake. The outcome of injuries to the Browns secondary and Rams all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald could completely change how this game plays out. The battles in the trenches could be critical, and if neither O-line can hold their own we could be looking at a defensive slugfest.
Oddsmakers are favoring the Rams by three on the road and on paper, they should win. But Cleveland is a time bomb waiting to go off, especially if the can find a way to give Baker Mayfield time in the pocket.
Rams 28, Cleveland 24