For the last two weeks, the Browns defense has established itself as one of the best units in the NFL.
The Browns held opponents to single-digit points in consecutive games for the first time in franchise history since 1995. They stormed through offensive lines and swarmed opposing QBs with pressure and sacks. They bottled wide receivers with sound secondary play.
Now, they'll look to keep it going against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL so far this season.
Justin Herbert is leading a Chargers offense that has gained plenty of momentum after defeating the reigning AFC-champion Chiefs in Week 3 and previously undefeated Raiders in Week 4. Herbert, the sixth overall pick of the 2020 draft, has thrown seven touchdowns and zero interceptions and has been sacked just three times in that span, earning him praise as one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league.
Now, he'll face a surging Browns defense hungry to stack another dominating performance Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
"In their system, he's doing a really good job," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said. "You can see it. He can process. He reads the field well. He has great size. He has the arm strength to make all of the throws. He is doing a really nice job just spreading it out, getting it to all of the receivers and involved."
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Los Angeles Chargers
Herbert has picked up where he left off as a rookie in 2020, when he broke Browns QB Baker Mayfield's rookie record with 31 touchdown passes — eclipsing Mayfield's 27 touchdowns from 2018 — and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He's 6-foot-6 and has already shown an above-average level of poise and decision-making skills in the pocket.
But he hasn't faced a defense loaded with the list of playmakers that have given Cleveland one of the best units in the league.
The Chargers toughest defensive opponent so far has been the Cowboys, who rank 17th in the league and managed to beat the Chargers, 20-17, in Week 2. The Chiefs, Raiders and Washington Football Team all rank in the bottom half of the league defensively.
The Browns? They're fourth in points allowed and second in total defense.
And they're ready to make yet another statement that they belong in the conversation for the best unit in the league. A win against the Chargers would certainly be another step in the right direction.
"We've got to take (Herbert) off his rhythm," DE Myles Garrett said. "He's able to make throws because they're there, and we have to start taking away throws so the rush can get there."
Stopping Herbert means stopping WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who have opened the season as one of the most productive WR duos. They've combined for 600 yards and six of Herbert's nine touchdowns, while RB Austin Ekeler has also carried a chunk of the load with two rushing touchdowns, two receiving touchdowns and 424 yards from scrimmage.
Woods, who played two games a year against those playmakers while he was with the Broncos from 2015-2018, didn't need to watch the tape to familiarize himself with their skills and tendencies.
"I know who they are," Woods said. "I feel confident in our matchups, but it's going to be tough. We're going to have to be on top of it technique-wise. We're going to have to have the ability to make plays on the 50-50 balls down the field. Those guys do a great job in space just in terms of getting yards after contact. We are going to have to do really everything well to play well against them."
The Browns, though, certainly have evidence to prove they're up for the challenge. They limited WRs Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson and RB Dalvin Cook to 164 total yards last week en route to allowing just one Vikings touchdown.
That's because they were able to attack the quarterback, Kirk Cousins, with pressure and force him into uncomfortable throws. Cook, meanwhile, had little running room on his nine carries and was often met quickly by defenders.
The Browns believe that approach will be their defensive identity for the rest of the season.
They can emphasize that point even further with another stout performance against one of the NFL's hottest offenses.
"We've still got something to prove," Garrett said. "We've got something to prove every week. There will always be someone who doesn't believe in what we're doing or our performance for the week prior, so we just have to keep putting it on tape."