Rams vs. Browns: Cleveland's Keys to the Week 10 Matchup
To a national audience, it is a game of little importance between two bad teams; but for the teams involved, this matchup has serious significance.
The game pits Browns head coach Pat Shurmur against his former team, where he was the offensive coordinator from 2009-2010. Shurmur's work with the Rams offense was what got him his first head coaching job with Cleveland, but both teams' offenses have struggled badly in 2011.
Thus, it's a huge game for Shurmur, who needs to prove he can beat his former team and that he's making strides with his new one.
It's also an important game for the Browns in general because it's probably the last game you might call "very winnable" on their schedule for the rest of the season. The Browns are three-point favorites in this one, and given what they have coming up in their final seven games after this, it's probably the last time this year they won't go into the game as the underdog.
The Browns have angered fans in recent weeks with their lack of improvement in their overall development, play calling judgment errors and completely unproductive offense. This week they face a 1-7 team and have a chance at redemption.
For the Browns, that makes this game practically a must-win. The team needs it. The fans need it. And Coach Shurmur needs it.
Following are five keys to the game for the Browns when they face the Rams on Sunday.
1. Depleted RB Corps, Meet the League's Worst Run Defense
After watching the Browns defense cede a whopping 261 rushing yards to the Houston Texans last week, it's hard to believe they don't have the worst run defense in the league.
The bad news is they're close the bottom. The good news is the worst run defense in the NFL belongs to their opponent.
As bad as the Browns have been at defending the run, the Rams have been worse, giving up 153.6 yards per game.
An opponent with numbers that bad against the run couldn't come at a better time for the Browns, whose run game has been seriously depleted by injuries, ineffectiveness and off-field controversies.
For the Browns running backs, this game is a gift, a chance to get their confidence back and prove their entire run game wasn't a one-dimensional entity that lived and died with Peyton Hillis.
It will be largely up to Chris Ogbonnaya to prove that, the last man left standing after injuries to Hillis and Montario Hardesty and a guy who was on a practice squad mere weeks ago.
In his three games as a Brown, Ogbonnaya has logged just 86 yards on 30 carries, averaging 2.9 yards per carry. He's also yet to find his way to the end zone.
While it's tough to place the burden of the whole ground attack on a third-stringer, the Browns' lack of depth at the position has left them with no other options. This game is a chance for the Browns to get some confidence back in their run game against an abysmal run defense and for Ogbonnaya to prove he's more than just a practice-squad lifer who lucked his way into a starting role in the NFL.
2. Battle of the College QB Rivals
McCoy and Bradford were quite familiar with one another in college, playing for Big-12 rivals the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners, respectively.
Bradford was drafted before McCoy (first overall in 2010) and has a slight edge over McCoy in the numbers since they both entered the NFL, but McCoy owns the better numbers so far this season, with 1,764 yards and 10 TDs to Bradford's 1,432 yards and three TDs.
In all fairness, Bradford's inferior numbers likely have a lot to do with the fact that injuries have allowed him to play just five games this season. Though his completion percentage and TD/INT ratio have been worse than McCoy's in 2011 as well, he's been the better QB throughout his NFL career, at least so far.
Career-wise, their ratings are nearly identical, and though most consider Bradford the better player, the numbers don't suggest there's that big a gap between the two.
For McCoy, a fiercely competitive guy who has been hamstrung by a weak offensive line and less-than-stellar receiving targets, this game has to be gravely important. Despite the Browns' rough season overall, he would surely get a lot of satisfaction out of besting his old college rival Bradford, who thus far has proven more successful but less durable than McCoy.
As competitive as McCoy is, Bradford is no slouch either and you can bet he wants this one just as bad. Look for the two QBs to bring their "A" game as both have something to prove as individuals here in addition to the fact that their teams need the win badly.
3. Browns' Struggling Run Defense Faces Yet Another Formidable Adversary
As bad as the league's worst run defense has been for the Rams, the Browns haven't been much better, giving up an ugly 144.1 yards per game to opposing rushers.
It seems the struggling Browns run D can't buy a break, as every week it seems to be stuck facing off against an opponent with a top-notch rusher.
This week, unfortunately, will be no exception to that, as the Browns are forced to try to stop the talented Steven Jackson.
Jackson has struggled with injury this season and has played just five games, but he's quickly making up for lost time, logging 289 yards in his last two games. That spells trouble for the Browns, who seem to allow an opposing RB to top 100 yards nearly every week.
The Browns run defense has a lot to prove and is surely looking for an opportunity to shut down a top-tier opposing running back to show it's not completely hopeless at defending opponents' ground games.
Unfortunately, Jackson is a tough guy to bring down and he's been on fire lately. While he has just 579 yards and four TDs on the season, he's also averaging a very scary 5.6 yards per carry.
If the Browns want a win this week, they have to stop Jackson from earning the kind of performance he has in his last two games against the Saints and Cardinals. With the way the Browns offense has failed to put up points in recent weeks, they cannot afford to let a back like Jackson run all over them or they'll find themselves on the wrong end of a lopsided score yet again.
4. Big Test for a Depleted Secondary
The Browns secondary, thought by many to be one of the team's biggest strengths entering 2011, has largely been a huge disappointment.
With the exception of the outstanding Joe Haden, they have been wildly inconsistent, making costly mistakes and battling crippling injuries.
Unfortunately, injuries will loom large for the secondary again this week, as the Browns will be without T.J. Ward, Usama Young and Dimitri Patterson.
Being down three men this week spells trouble for the Browns, who lack the depth to absorb the loss of three men in the position group.
They have a tough task ahead of them this week, dealing with a strong passer in Bradford, who has decent receiving targets and just acquired a potentially deadly one in Brandon Lloyd, who they got in a trade from the Broncos.
As good as Haden is, he can't cover everybody, and the Rams will surely look to pick apart the Browns limping secondary by repeatedly throwing downfield.
Safety Mike Adams and CB Sheldon Brown will need to come up big this week, or the Browns will find themselves the victims of an aerial assault that is potentially just as deadly as the one they'll be dealing with on the ground against Jackson.
5. Coach Shurmur vs. His Old Team
It's been a rough start for rookie head coach Pat Shurmur in Cleveland, as he's been lampooned by the media and the fans for his ineffective play calling and his choice to do without an offensive coordinator in his first year as a head coach.
Shurmur was hired by the Browns because of his success as an offensive coordinator in St. Louis, but so far he has looked to be in over his head after taking on dual roles as head coach and offensive coordinator this season.
Shurmur spent two years in the coordinator position for St. Louis and helped develop the Rams' young talent on offense. This will be his first time facing his old team, and you can bet he's dying to prove the edge of familiarity belongs to him, not his former players.
Under fire for pretty much the whole season, Shurmur needs a win badly. This game would be a particularly important victory, given that it's against his former employer and also that, well, if he can't beat a 1-7 team, he's in very serious trouble.
It's always tough to say who really has the edge in such matchups—the former coach or his former team. Each knows the other well, which both helps and hurts both sides.
Whether Shurmur can best his old team will say a lot about how much progress he's made as a coach and how much progress the Rams have made as a team. The odds favor Shurmur, simply because he's collected more wins this season than St. Louis has, though both teams' records are woefully bad.
A win here would take a lot of pressure off Shurmur, who already has fans calling for his head. If he loses this one, the cries for his ousting will only get louder; if he wins it, he'll likely get the Browns faithful off his back, at least for the time being.