This week's edition of Sunday Night Football features two teams that came into the year with sky-high expectations, but have fallen somewhat short of them thus far. The Cleveland Browns have looked nothing like the high-flying group many expected them to be, while the Los Angeles Rams have gotten off to a 2-0 start, but in a less-than-convincing fashion.
This marquee matchup provides an opportunity for both teams to propel themselves through the next few weeks of the season. A breakout performance in prime time could be just the spark the Baker Mayfield-led Browns offense needs, and a big game on the road could get Jared Goff back to the level he was at for much of last season. Of course, each team will have its hands full with the opposing defense, so there are no guarantees here.
Let's break things down.
Rams at Browns
- Date: Sunday, Sept. 22
- Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
- TV channel: NBC
- Streaming: fuboTV (Try for free)
- Odds: Rams -3, O/U 47.5 (via SportsLine)
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When the Rams have the ball
The Los Angeles offense has not gotten off to nearly as strong a start as it did last season. The 2018 Rams finished the regular season second in the NFL in both yards and points per game, and second in yards per play and third in points per drive. They had the NFL's second-most efficient offense, per Football Outsiders' DVOA, and were one of just two teams (along with the Chiefs) ranked in the top five in both rushing and passing efficiency.
As of this writing, the Rams rank sixth in points per game, but just 15th in yards per game, 17th in yards per play, eighth in yards per drive, ninth in offensive DVOA, and 18th in passing efficiency in 2019. They've had the misfortune of beginning the season against two strong defenses in the Panthers and Saints, but it's not as though they did not find a ton of success against strong defenses over the past two years.
The issue so far seems to be the continued shaky performance of quarterback Jared Goff. From Week 1 of last season through the legendary shootout with the Chiefs in Week 11, Goff was absolutely on fire, and looked like one of the very best quarterbacks in the league. Ever since, he has been something south of ordinary.
|Stretch||2018 Wk 1-11||Wk 12 - Present|
Inclusive of his stats from last year's playoff run, Goff has thrown nearly the same number of passes since Week 12 of last season as he did during those first 11 weeks, but he has thrown for more than 1,200 fewer yards, 17 fewer touchdowns, and three more interceptions during that latter stretch. Needless to say, this has to be a bit concerning, especially since the Rams have just handed Goff a $140 million contract.
Goff has been extremely shaky when under pressure, which is not necessarily a good sign against a team that employs a defensive line featuring Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, and Larry Ogunjobi. Garrett and Vernon alone have combined for 18 pressures so far this season, while Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein has struggled, by his standards, allowing eight pressures in two games. LA has two new starters on the interior of the offensive line, and the four players who have taken snaps at guard or center this year (Joseph Noteboom, Brian Allen, Austin Blythe, Jamil Demby) have combined to allow a ridiculous 23 pressures so far. That's an average of 11.5 pressures per game up the middle, compared to an average of just 6.8 per game from the corresponding group of players a year ago.
Goff has not gotten enough protection to hit on his favored play-action shot plays, which has taken away a major component of this Sean McVay offense. After averaging 10.0 yards per attempt and a 115.0 passer rating on play-action a year ago, Goff is down at 7.0 yards per attempt and a 64.0 rating this season. And it's not as though the Los Angeles run game has been ineffective, causing a trickle-down effect on play-action throws. The Rams rank first in rushing DVOA, while Malcolm Brown ranks first in Football Outsiders' success rate and Todd Gurley ranks fourth. (The Browns rank 20th in rushing defense DVOA so far, so the Rams may just decide to lean into the run, especially given Goff's persistent struggles on the road.)
Perhaps they can finally get that play-action game going this week, however. The Browns were torn up by Marcus Mariota on passes after run fakes in Week 1, allowing him to complete 7 of 11 passes for 217 yards and three scores. Even if you take out the 75-yard screen pass to Derrick Henry, they still let Mariota go 6 of 10 for 142 yards and two touchdowns on his other play-action throws. If they can finally hit on a shot play down the field off play-action, maybe that'll open up the rest of the field.
Cooper Kupp has been the Rams' best receiver so far this season despite spending most of the offseason recovering from ACL surgery, and he has the best matchup this week as well. Brandin Cooks figures to see a whole lot of Denzel Ward on the perimeter, so we may not see him get untracked just yet. Robert Woods floats between the outside and the slot and seems to be Goff's preferred intermediate target, so he may be able to shake free against the Browns' linebackers and safeties if and when they're in zone coverage.
When the Browns have the ball
Speaking of offensive line issues! Yeesh. Pro Football Focus somehow only has Baker Mayfield being pressured on 34 percent of his drop backs thus far, which seems like some sort of error, but those pressures have been so disruptive of the Browns' offensive flow that he looks like a completely different quarterback this season. Mayfield is just 9 of 20 for 104 yards and a pick when under pressure, and he has been sacked eight times on 28 pressured drop backs.
Good thing these guys aren't playing the best defensive player in football on Sunday -- whoops, the Rams have Aaron Donald and the Browns offensive line is in deep trouble if they don't get something fixed, and fast. Head coach Freddie Kitchens stated earlier this week that he needs to do a better job of giving Mayfield reads that allow him to get the ball out quickly, minimizing the amount of time opposing rushmen have to get into his face. That's a good idea, but the Browns also just need to block better up front. You can't run your entire offense with quick-strike passes and no shots down the field.
This week, those quick-strike passes may be more necessary than against any team they've faced so far. Not only is Donald the most unstoppable player in the league, but Wade Phillips loves to send rushers from all different angles to disrupt an offense's flow. Unfortunately, Mayfield has not shown much chemistry with slot man Jarvis Landry either this year or last; tight end David Njoku is out for at least a month with a broken wrist; receivers Rashard Higgins (injury) and Antonio Callaway (suspension) are likely still out; and Duke Johnson is languishing on the Texans' bench behind Carlos Hyde, for some reason.
So it might just come down to whether Mayfield can pepper Odell Beckham Jr. with enough targets to move the ball up and down the field. Mayfield is 13 of 21 for 232 yards and a score so far this season, and he's had two additional chunk completions to Beckham negated by penalty. The Browns have been moving Beckham all over the formation, so he is likely to see equal amounts of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib in coverage, because the Rams play sides with their corners. When Beckham bumps down into the slot, they'll presumably just cover him with Nickell Robey-Coleman, one of the best slot corners in the league. (NRC is allowing just 0.84 yards per cover snap, per PFF, third-fewest among the 96 "starting" corners in the league.)
It's difficult to see Mayfield finding even Beckham for gains down the field if he does not get back into the rhythm we saw from him down the stretch last season. He has seemed utterly confused by the defensive schemes of both the Titans and Jets, misreading coverages on several occasions and hitching before throws that he should be making with ease. Perhaps that's the offensive line issues affecting his progressions and confidence in which throws will be there when they should be, but either way, it needs to be cleaned up.
Involving Nick Chubb in the passing game more often could provide another dynamic threat, but the Browns seem to want D'Ernest Johnson and/or Dontrell Hilliard to be involved on those downs. Chubb has looked good when able to break into the open field on his runs, but the team's line issues have spilled over to the run game so he has not had many opportunities to get to the second level. Cleveland ranks just 24th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards, and the team has converted exactly 0 percent of its power running opportunities. (Third or fourth downs with two or fewer yards to go.) The Rams have not been quite as stingy against the run as they have against the pass, however, so maybe there's an opportunity here for Chubb to get going, which could loosen up the defense and help Mayfield.
Prediction: Rams 23, Browns 20