Banged-up Browns defense prepares for challenge of Rams' high-powered offense

Less than a week after they faced two backup quarterbacks on the national stage, the Browns will return home to face a much greater challenge.

The name of such challenge? The Los Angeles Rams.

Perhaps you’ve heard of them. They were the team in the blue helmets with the yellow horns that comprised one half of Super Bowl LIII’s competitive matchup. The one that won the National Football Conference. The one with Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and Aaron Donald. The one that was founded in Cleveland in 1936.

The Rams will return to their roots and to the same site of their old home (FirstEnergy Stadium stands on the same site as Cleveland Municipal Stadium once did) Sunday night for an affair guaranteed to be viewed by more than 10 million people, including the 67,895 that will pack the home of the Browns. They’ll meet a defense that has carried the Browns for much of their first two weeks of action, and the Rams will readily counter with the same ambitious and explosive offense that helped them race to a conference crown in 2018.

The Browns will be presented with some unexpected challenges. Linebacker Christian Kirksey (chest), the vocal leader of Cleveland’s defense, was ruled out for the game. So was safety Damarious Randall. Safety Morgan Burnett (quad), cornerbacks Denzel Ward (hamstring) and Greedy Williams (hamstring) and linebacker Adarius Taylor (ankle) are questionable.

“Obviously, you never want to see a teammate go down, a good friend go down, somebody you rely on right next to you in your position group getting hurt, especially with what he has been through the past year, but we have young guys that are going to need to step up,” Browns linebacker Joe Schobert said of Kirksey. “They have a lot talent and they have the ability to do so. I am excited to see how they do on the field on Sunday.”

Check out photos from the three times the Browns have hosted Sunday Night Football since 1999

Cleveland will need to rely on the competitive depth general manager John Dorsey has worked so tirelessly to establish in the last year and a half when it hosts Los Angeles, for it might be its only choice. Names like Terrance Mitchell, Eric Murray and Mack Wilson could mean much more on Sunday night. Jermaine Whitehead, too.

Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks is perfectly fine with that.

“You guys already know but if you haven’t, Jermaine is one of my favorites,” Wilks said Thursday. “I think he is smart. He puts himself in a position to be successful. I love the way he orchestrates and really runs the back end by communicating everybody. He is good in the run game. He can fit the run just like the linebackers, and he is very adequate out in space, as well.”

There are positives in who is expected to play. Schobert had, perhaps, his best game as a professional Monday night and returns for more, as does Murray, who filled in nicely for Randall in Week 2, and the entire Browns’ front four.

They’ll be needed against an offense that features a premier runner in two-time All-Pro Gurley, three high-quality receivers (Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp) and very capable reserves. It’s an offense executed by Goff and orchestrated from the sideline by the headset-wearing master conductor, Rams head coach Sean McVay. It’s also a unit that ranks sixth in scoring (28.5 points per game) and 13th in yards per game (364.5) through two weeks, falling right in line with where it was for much of 2018.

“Sean McVay is a tremendous offensive mind,” Wilks said. “He does a great job of putting his players in position to be successful. They have tremendous talents on offense, starting in the backfield with Goff and then Gurley so they spread the ball, move the ball around quite a bit so we have to be ready for anything.”

The one question one might have about the Rams’ offense when comparing its 2018 and 2019 depth charts is the new names along the offensive line. Gone are guard Rodger Saffold and center John Sullivan, replaced by the 2018 draft picks Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen. One might think replacing reliable veterans with unproven youngsters is a risk, but so far, there hasn’t been a notable change. Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson explained it’s more about what, not who, when it comes to the Rams’ offense.

“Same system,” Richardson said Thursday. “Agile offensive linemen, well, from guard to guard anyway, but other than that, same offense.

“(Noteboom and Allen) play together. … As far as the system-wise, it’s the same thing I played against last year when I was with the Vikings. Again, we’re attacking the system. Not them.”

That same system saw a wave of coaches who’d spent some time with McVay ride fast tracks to important coaching positions in the NFL during the offseason. Everyone wants to grab a piece of the new-age offense.

For the Browns, they’ll have to rely more on tried and true tenets to find success Sunday night. Playing disciplined, error-free football is vitally important, as is pressuring Goff. Cleveland must force Los Angeles to make multiple mistakes to have a good chance of victory.

“It is a great challenge for us,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said. “Our guys will do a good job preparing this week, and we will go out and give it our best shot on Sunday. They are a very good team. We are going to show up on Sunday and see where we are.”

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