Browns vs. Rams: St. Louis Grades, Notes and Quotes
The St. Louis Rams (3-3) stepped up and secured a 24-6 victory over the struggling Cleveland Browns (2-5). The win will propel the Rams to second place in the NFC West—an excellent position to be in as 2015 nears midseason.
The Rams were in control for all four quarters, but the Browns put up a fight in the first half.
The defense created all 10 of St. Louis' first-half points. Safety Rodney McLeod's fumble-recovery touchdown put the Rams on the board and another fumble recovery put the St. Louis offense in field-goal range.
For a moment, it appeared St. Louis' lack of offensive production would allow Cleveland to claw back and eventually pull ahead. Fortunately, Todd Gurley had other plans.
The rookie running back—making just his third NFL start—ran wild in the second half, including a 48-yard run and two rushing touchdowns. His presence has apparently jump-started a St. Louis offense that would otherwise be nonexistent without him.
Gurley certainly saved the day, but it was the St. Louis defense that dominated the game from start to finish.
The Rams defense recorded four takeaways—all fumble recoveries—four sacks and held the Cleveland running backs to just 56 yards on the ground. Also, Cleveland entered the game leading the NFL with eight completions of 40 or more yards this season, but the Browns had zero in this game.
Between the stout defensive play and Gurley's magic on offense, the Rams secured a nice team victory. The 18-point win is St. Louis' largest margin of victory this season.
The Rams will attempt to maintain this momentum a week from now when they host the struggling 2-5 San Francisco 49ers. Meanwhile, things won't get any easier for the Browns, as they host the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8.
For more on this game, including position grades, key takeaways and quotes, read on.
Position Grades for the Rams
This game wasn't exactly a comeback performance for Nick Foles following his disastrous showing in Green Bay two weeks ago. Even so, he played well enough to help fans at least partially forget that debacle.
Foles was a solid 15-of-23 (65.2 percent) with a modest 163 yards. He didn't throw any touchdowns, but that's irrelevant. What's important is the fact he avoided turnovers. He had zero picks and no fumbles in the game.
It wasn't a spectacular performance for Foles, but it was a nice rebound from his four-pick performance in Green Bay. Hopefully, this game will help Foles regain some of his confidence.
At running back, Gurley was the star of the show. He clobbered the Cleveland defense for 128 rushing yards, 35 yards through the air and two touchdowns. Tavon Austin also added a 21-yard run, and Benny Cunningham had an eight-yard pickup.
The receivers were quiet but did just enough to make a difference. Kenny Britt's 41-yard catch set up a Gurley touchdown. Austin added four catches for 43 yards and also had a great block on Gurley's 48-yard pickup.
At tight end, Jared Cook had a pair of catches for 19 yards, but he had a careless fumble inside the red zone that cost St. Louis points. Cook has been the focus of much of the fan criticism this season, and it appears that will continue.
The offensive line struggled in pass protection for much of the game. Foles was under a great deal of pressure. However, the run blocking was certainly up to par. Greg Robinson and Tim Barnes both had very solid moments in run blocking.
As usual, the defensive line was very disruptive. Aaron Donald had a sack and was a handful for the Cleveland line. William Hayes had a pair of sacks. Eugene Sims and Nick Fairley both had a fumble recovery.
At linebacker, James Laurinaitis continues to be a force in the middle. He struggled early in the year but has settled in ever since. He was a stone wall in the run game. Akeem Ayers also contributed with a fumble recovery.
The secondary played an excellent game. Janoris Jenkins helped the Rams limit Travis Benjamin to four catches and 47 yards. Lamarcus Joyner was a weapon in run support. Safeties T.J. McDonald and Mark Barron teamed up to force a fumble with a big hit, while McLeod scored on a fumble recovery.
Special teams was solid for the most part, but Greg Zuerlein had issues with accuracy. He missed a desperate 63-yard attempt before the half—not a big deal—but then went on to shank a short 35-yard attempt.
Other than Zuerlein's error, there weren't many issues with special teams.
The coaching staff deserves credit because the team was prepared, but there were still some issues.
For starters, as soon as St. Louis went up 24-6, Gurley should have been out of the game. The Rams allowed him to enter the game the following drive, and there was no need for it. Gurley is basically St. Louis' only source of offense, so why needlessly risk injury?
Second, offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti must find a way to spark the passing game. Outside of a few key passes, the aerial attack was dead in this game. Being a one-dimensional run team works against the Browns, as they have the league's worst run defense, but it won't fly against better opponents.
Other than that, the coaches deserve credit. The game plan worked, and the team was ready to play.
Kenny Britt Finally Makes Some Noise
Prior to this game, Britt's last catch came in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers—a game where he recorded seven catches for 102 yards.
After nearly a month-long vacation, Britt decided to show up again. In the third quarter he drew a 26-yard pass-interference penalty. On the next play, he hauled in a 41-yard pass from Foles and nearly crossed the goal line (he was brought down at the 1). The play set up Gurley's first touchdown of the game.
The Rams need to see more consistency from Britt. He's capable of making big plays and threatening a secondary, but he simply disappears at times.
With Cook struggling, Brian Quick fighting for playing time and no other outside weapons to speak of, the Rams need Britt to step up and become the No. 1 guy. The aerial offense will have a tough time taking off until that happens.
Mark Barron Doing Well in Alec Ogletree's Role
The loss of linebacker Alec Ogletree in Week 4 was a major blow to the defense. Few NFL linebackers were playing better than Ogletree at the time, so it was unclear how the defense would respond.
Fortunately, Barron—St. Louis' safety-linebacker hybrid—has stepped up to the challenge.
Barron's performance against the Browns was very Ogletree-like. He led the team with 16 tackles and helped T.J. McDonald put the hit on Benjamin that caused a fumble that Nick Fairley recovered.
Barron has also been a weapon as a pass-rusher. He delivered the hit that knocked Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Week 3. He also put a good stick on Josh McCown in this game and rattled him.
It's unclear when and if Ogletree will return in 2015. If it doesn't happen, the Rams are certainly pleased to know Barron is capable of stepping up and providing that perfect mixture of run support and blitzing.
Aaron Donald Continues to Make Case for Defensive Player of the Year
Donald's rapid rise into NFL stardom has been nothing short of remarkable. He had a Pro Bowl season as a rookie in 2014 and is on pace for a double-digit sack campaign in 2015.
Even when he's not sacking quarterbacks, his constant disruption at the line of scrimmage is an asset. Aaron Donald is Pro Football Focus' highest-graded tackle, with an overall grade of 23.9. The combination of Donald up front and Laurinaitis at inside linebacker has made it extremely difficult for opponents to run up the gut.
Donald finished with a sack and three tackles in this game, but his value doesn't end there. The Browns had four false starts in this game, and Donald's threatening type of play is a big reason why the Cleveland linemen were jittery.
As we near the season's midway point, few NFL defenders have a better case for Defensive Player of the Year than Donald.
Shane Gray on Jared Cook's Fumble
"Finally, a nice drive going by the Rams but Jared Cook strikes again. This is ridiculous to be honest. No excuses for this anymore."—Shane Gray of CBS Sports 920 via Twitter.
The 2015 season has not been ideal for tight end Jared Cook.
Cook was a productive and even under-appreciated part of the offense in 2013 and 2014. In those two seasons, he had a combined 103 catches for eight touchdowns and over 1,300 yards. He finished 12th among tight ends in 2014 with 634 yards and 11th in 2013 with 671.
This year, he's on pace for just 501 yards and has yet to find the end zone.
However, it's not the route running that's holding back Cook. It's the inexplicable mental errors.
Cook entered the Cleveland game with four drops on the year—the most for a tight end this season, per Pro Football Focus—and his red-zone fumble against the Browns was inexcusable. The Rams only owned a four-point lead at that stage in the game, so his error could have easily turned the momentum and lost the game for St. Louis.
It's unclear what the plan is moving forward. Clearly, the offense cannot afford to let this continue. When Lance Kendricks returns to the lineup, expect Cook to see a reduced role—at least until his mental issues clear up.
Nick Wagoner on St. Louis' Love for Gurley
"And now the Gurley chant is officially a thing. Loud chants in the (Edward Jones Dome) right now."—Nick Wagoner of ESPN via Twitter.
Gurley's second-half rampage evoked an audible response from the home St. Louis fans. Following his touchdowns, the unmistakable sounds of the fans chanting "Gurley! Gurley!" could be heard over the broadcast.
Clearly, the fans appreciate the fact St. Louis finally has an offensive player worth rooting for.
It's hard not to take notice. Gurley's 128 yards on the ground is actually his lowest rushing total in a start this year. He's averaging 144 yards per start and is on pace for over 1,800 yards despite missing the first two games and not receiving a start until Week 4.
As brutal as the St. Louis offense has been this season, Gurley's presence has suddenly made it worth watching.
For the last several years, the St. Louis defense has excelled only to be held back by the offense. Gurley might be the boost that finally brings the offense up to par.
Clearly, Rams fans are excited about that.
Jim Thomas on St. Louis' Current Record
"Rams 3-3, haven't been at .500 this late in the season since 3-3 start in 2013."—Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Twitter.
As Jim Thomas mentioned, the Rams haven't sat at .500 this late in the year since 2013. With 10 games remaining and the hardest part of the schedule in the rearview mirror, anything can happen.
In 2013, the Rams entered Week 7 with the same record. St. Louis went on to lose three straight games and finished with just four victories in the final 10 games. Part of that slump was due to the midseason loss of Sam Bradford, but either way, the team imploded and failed to get it done.
This time, the Rams are in the same position entering midseason. It's time for St. Louis to either step up or slide into mediocrity once again.
Of the 10 final opponents, only three of those teams—Minnesota, Cincinnati, Arizona—currently own a winning record. St. Louis already managed to beat Arizona once this season, and the second game will be on the Rams' turf. The other seven remaining opponents are all below .500.
If the Rams can run the table against the seven inferior opponents—winning at least five of those games—while also securing a win or two against the three remaining high-end teams, the Rams will be in a great position to make a run at the wild card or possibly even a division title.
The time is now for the Rams. St. Louis will only be able to keep its stout defense intact for so long. If the Rams cannot capitalize on their talented roster and secure the needed wins, the opportunity will slip away.