In a game billed as an overall disappointment by Browns head coach Mike Pettine, there was one clear star performer: rookie linebacker Chris Kirksey.
Days after the team announced Kirksey would share a starting role with Craig Robertson at inside linebacker, the 21-year-old led the Browns with seven tackles, including one for a loss.
But as the Browns and the rest of the NFL are quickly realizing, Kirksey's skills in coverage are his biggest asset.
In the middle of the third quarter, Kirksey picked off an Austin Davis pass over the middle intended for Alex Bayer. Kirksey alertly recognized the pass play, disguised his zone coverage, jumped the route at the exact right time, tipped the pass to himself, and bolted 23 yards down the sideline to setup an ensuing Duke Johnson Jr. touchdown scramble. The play was a work of art.
"Jim O'Neil, our defensive coordinator, called a great play and I just backed up in my zone and the quarterback tried to throw it over my head and I just made a play on the ball," said Kirksey of the interception.
Pettine has repeatedly said if you watch Kirksey on film, he doesn't look like a rookie. The linebacker is rarely out of position and he doesn't take a play off. The humble Kirksey points out it's his fellow linebacker Robertson who helped him relax prior to the Rams game.
"Craig was just telling me to go out there and have fun and try and make a play," said Kirksey. "Once I made that play, it was just good to celebrate with my teammates. I'm just looking forward to making plays down the road."
The inside linebacker position in the Browns' defense is arguably the most imperative for success. Inside linebackers are asked to disguise what they are doing at all times, in both stopping the run and pass coverage. There's a ton of pre-snap movement that's confusing to even some veteran players.
That's why some were taken by surprise when Pettine announced prior to training camp that Kirksey would challenge for a starting role. It was perceived guard Joel Bitonio and quarterback Johnny Manziel were given legitimate chances to challenge for a starting spot. A third-round pick back in May, Kirksey would have a short span of time to learn a complex defensive system. The battle would be an uphill climb.
So far, Kirksey is scaling that mountain with ease. Kirksey was supposed to take strides his rookie year. He was supposed to be a solid member of the special teams unit. But to already be this big of a contributor on defense?
The Browns are beyond thrilled with Kirksey's preseason progression and see potential star ability if this type of play keeps up.