Many fans came into the season with incredible expectations, but they came into this game with relatively low ones. Their entire starting secondary, both the starting and backup RT, and WR Rashard Higgins were ruled out with injuries as well as captain and starting LB Christian Kirksey along with TE David Njoku landing on IR during the week, set the Browns at a disadvantage heading into the showdown with last year’s NFC Champions. All things considered, the defense played outstanding despite missing many key pieces of the unit, and the offensive scheme was better, but it seemed to lack adjustments throughout the game. The Browns fought hard, lead for a good part of the game, and they even had a chance to tie or go for the win with around 30-45 seconds remaining, but they came up just short with 20-13 defeat to fall to 1-2. However, during next week’s matchup with the Baltimore Ravens, sole possession of first place in the AFC North will be up for grabs, so the Browns need to get healthy and iron out some kinks from their Sunday Night game.
This game started out as the barn burner we all expected as both of the explosive offenses only produced 9 total points in the first half. The Browns didn’t have the best start registering two penalties on their way to a three and out on their first drive. Jamie Gillan punted away from the Cleveland 27, but he still managed to get a nice bounce and roll all the way to the Rams 18 continuing his astounding rate of punts inside the 20. The depleted Browns defense managed to force a three and out of their own to get the ball right back. Then it was time for arguably the best player in the league, Aaron Donald, to start making an impact on the game. Starting with an incompletion, the Browns then gave the ball to Nick Chubb who ran to the left side for nine yards before being tackled by Donald making it 3rd & 1. On the next play, Donald swam around Bitonio almost immediately and brought down Chubb for a loss of two to force another three and out. Gillan continued his special teams dominance with his second punt inside the 20 in a row down to the Rams 14.
At this point, it’s not exactly a secret the Jared Goff struggles with pressure, namely pressure right up the middle, but the Browns were having trouble generating much at all during this drive. They allowed Jared Goff to sit back in the pocket and scan the field, so he was able to connect on some chunk plays. He connected for two first downs in a row with Brandin Cooks for 18 yards, and then 15 yards three plays later. A little later, Goff connected with Cooper Kupp for 6 yards on 3rd & 5 after a 5 yard run from Todd Gurley the play before to move the chains once again. Similarly to last week though, the defense might bend, but they managed to hold tough and force a 53 yard field goal attempt, which K Greg Zuerlein nailed through the uprights to give the Rams a 3-0 lead with a little over 4 minutes remaining in the first quarter.
The Browns answered with a lengthy, methodical drive of their own lasting until a little over three minutes into the second quarter. During this drive, the Browns really committed to the frequent use of RPOs to move the football down the field. Nick Chubb was incredibly effective with several nice runs, and Baker was 5-6 on the drive. Once they got into the red zone though, the drive stalled as Chubb was held in check for two short gains, and Baker threw his only incompletion on 3rd and goal, which forced the Browns to settle for a short field goal to tie the game 3-3 with just under 12 minutes left in the half.
After surrendering a first down on a 22 yard reception by Cooper Kupp, the defense forced three straight incompletions to force the Rams to punt from the Cleveland 44. P Johnny Hekker pinned the Browns deep into their own territory to the 6 yard line. The Browns didn’t do much to help themselves as they were forced to punt after a quick three and out. Jamie Gillan only managed to get this ball slightly past midfield, but a block in the back penalty tacked on an extra 10 yards to help the defense. Beginning on the second play of the drive, Goff completed three straight passes for 37 yards to move the Rams across midfield and into field goal territory. However, Larry Ogunjobi came up with a crucial 9 yard sack to make the kick considerably more difficult. It proved to be an even bigger play as Zuerlein missed the 48-yarder wide right to keep the score even.
The Browns looked to take advantage of the rare miss by Zuerlein, and the drive started off with a bang. Baker hit Jarvis Landry in space who juked and cut his way to a 25 yard catch and run. Unfortunately the Browns has negative 4 yards from that point on thanks to a couple incompletions and a false start penalty. Rather than go for the very long field goal, the Browns decided to punt and play defense. Jamie Gillan didn’t have the greatest punt, but it was still enough to pin the Rams back at their own 12 for his third punt inside the 20 of the game. Just as it looked like the Rams were putting together a nice drive, Myles Garrett ran over the RG, and then knocked the ball out of Goff’s hand as he brought the ball backward to throw. Garrett’s strip sack was his 6th sack of the young season, and it was a huge play because LB Joe Schobert was able to scoop it and return it all the way inside the red zone to the 17. With only 18 seconds remaining in the half, the Browns tried to throw the ball three times, all of which resulting in incompletions forcing the Browns to settle for a field goal. As time expired, K Austin Seibert drilled his second short field goal of the day to give the Browns a relatively surprising 6-3 lead heading into halftime.
The second half started out much more like many had expected out of these two teams. Sean McVay made the necessary adjustments to his game plan, and he seemingly had the Browns defense on their heels on the first drive moving the ball at will. Two nice runs from Todd Gurley for 7 and 8 yards respectively opened up the field for the Rams offense. Goff hit Cooks for 19 yards, Gurley ran for another 5, and then Goff found Cooks again for 16 more yards. After an incompletion, Goff hit Kupp over the middle for 13 yards to give the Rams 1st and goal from the 7. After a great tackle by Eric Murray to force a loss of 4 on Gurley on first and then an incompletion from Goff, the Rams finally punched it in as Goff found the wide open Cooper Kupp for an easy touchdown. There seemed to be some miscommunication on the play between LBs Joe Schobert and Mack Wilson combined with a great route by Kupp that lead to the touchdown. Zuerlein then connected on the extra point to make it a 10-6 game with just under 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
After that touchdown, it felt like the Browns had to answer or the game could potentially get out of hand rather quickly. The Browns answered the bell with a touchdown of their own after a fantastic, long drive to give their defense a nice break. Baker was 5/6 again, and Nick Chubb was heavily featured on the drive as well. The Browns were 3/3 on third downs, which is always a recipe for success. After a couple short passes from Baker to move the chains, Nick Chubb had a 9, and then a 12 yard run to take the Browns across midfield to the Rams 43. Here, the Browns ran into some trouble after Baker was sacked on second down by Clay Matthews III to bring up 3rd & 13. On a beautifully designed screen pass, Baker found Nick Chubb with a lot of blocker in the open field for a 30 yard pickup into the red zone to the 16. Jarvis Landry then drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone to give Cleveland the ball at the 1. An illegal shift wiped out the first play touchdown, but the Browns punched it in three plays later as Baker found TE Demetrius Harris in the back of the end zone for a two yard touchdown. Seibert added the extra point to give the Browns the lead once again with about four and a half minutes left in the third quarter.
With some new found momentum, the defense looked to get a quick stop to get the offense another possession as soon as possible. After giving up a first down on a 13 yard catch by WR Brandin Cooks, TJ Carrie made a fantastic play on the ball the very next play to intercept the pass on the left sideline. Unfortunately, the Browns offense followed up the outstanding play with one of the worst plays I’ve ever seen in my life. They ran another RPO, but Baker wasn’t sure what to do with the ball, so he kind of started to run, then he tried giving it to Chubb, but then he took it back away and fumbled. Luckily, the ball took a favorable bounce right back into Baker’s chest as he fell to the ground, so they were able to keep possession. Not much else happened though, so they were forced to punt two plays later narrowly avoiding disaster all for a three and out. Their luck on the drive kept getting worse though as Jamie Gillan shanked the punt off the side of his foot only traveling 21 yards before going out of bounds at the Rams 28.
Goff continued his connection with Cooks hooking up for a 23 yard gain up to midfield to being the drive. After two short runs from Todd Gurley, Goff then found Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods on back to back plays for 21 and 17 yards respectively to get them all the way to the 3 yard line for 1st and goal. Todd Gurley picked up two more yards on first down, and then the Browns two interior DL, Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson, stuffed Jared Goff on a QB sneak bringing up third down. Richardson showed off his veteran presence by shifting quickly on 3rd and goal scaring RG Jamil Demby into moving early for a false start. From there though, the Browns couldn’t stop Cooper Kupp from catching his second receiving touchdown of the game. With Zuerlein’s extra point racked on, the Rams took a 17-13 lead with nearly 13 minutes left in the game.
After a great 13 yard run from Nick Chubb to open the drive, Baker found Odell for a 19 yard gain to advance across midfield to the 41 two plays later. Unfortunately, the drive didn’t end up going much farther after a 1 yard run, an incompletion, and then a pass for no gain. Rather than punt or attempt the long field goal, Freddie Kitchens elected to go for it on 4th and 9. Too bad his play call was completely laughable, which he has deservingly been highly criticized for. Freddie reached deep into the playbook and chose to run a draw play on 4th and 9 that unsurprisingly didn’t work whatsoever and only gave the Browns two yards and a turnover on downs. This play call was blatantly stupid, and it was downright inexcusable for Kitchens to even think about calling that play in that situation.
The Rams took advantage of the Browns’ stupidity by turning their next drive into more points. After giving up a first down on a Brandin Cooks end around, the Browns forced two straight incompletions, and they forced Goff to scramble on 3rd & 10. Just as it looked like the Browns were going to get the crucial stop, S Jermaine Whitehead inexcusably dove in leading with his head after Goff was already tumbling from being tackled by Joe Schobert, so he was rightfully penalized for unnecessary roughness. Penalties like these cannot happen in close games, and it still shows signs of the team being relatively undisciplined. Luckily, the Browns were able to stop the Rams from going any farther with TJ Carrie forcing an incompletion with great coverage against Josh Reynolds on 3rd & 1. The Rams elected to take the points rather than go for it, so Zuerlein knocked through another field goal to make the score 20-13 with just under 7 minutes remaining.
During the kick return, the Browns were flagged, so they had to start the next drive at their own 10 yard line. On the first play, Baker held the ball for way too long because there were so many covered vertical routes, and it allowed Aaron Donald enough time to sack him for a loss of 7 pushing the Browns back to the 3. After a nice rush by Chubb to get all the lost yardage back, Baker again held the ball too long, and he was sacked for the second time by Clay Matthews III on Clay Matthews Jr’s ring of honor induction night. If there’s one positive from this, it’s that Clay Jr, and the entire family got to see Clay III have a great game, but this was far from good news for Cleveland fans. A good portion of the blame should be put on Baker for holding the ball too long and allowing himself to be sacked, but the scheme wasn’t all too helpful. On both plays, the routes were almost exclusively downfield, and on the second sack, there was no running back used as a check down outlet or as a pass blocker. Freddie Kitchens has to learn from mistakes like this, and it will improve the scheme, along with Baker’s statistics, immensely.
Starting from midfield, the Rams had an opportunity to put Cleveland away with a score. On the first play, CB Terrance Mitchell made a really nice play to bring Todd Gurley down in the backfield for a loss of two. Gurley got another carry where he busted free for a gain of 9 making it 3rd & 3 at the Browns 46. Goff dropped back, and he threw a pass intended for Robert Woods, which was tipped up in the air on a diving play by Joe Schobert and intercepted by Justin Burris who just resigned with the team this week after being let go during roster cuts after the preseason. Burris’ familiarity with the defense gave him the opportunity to play immediately in the banged up secondary, and he absolutely took advantage of it with perhaps the biggest play of the game. While Joe Schobert made the fantastic play to force the turnover, Burris was in position to catch the tipped ball, and he ran it back 15 yards before crashing into Schobert and falling to the ground.
After that incredible play, the Browns had a chance to tie or even win the game with about 2:45 seconds left on the clock. Starting from their own 43, Cleveland got their first first down due to an illegal contact penalty by rookie S Taylor Rapp. After two incompletions and a false start, the Browns were staring at a 3rd and 15, which they managed to convert as Baker stepped up in the pocket and delivered a strike to Jarvis Landry for a 27 yard gain. Following a short Chubb run, Mayfield found WR Damion Ratley over the middle for a 16 yard pickup and another first down. Baker was also hit in the face after the throw by Aaron Donald, so the Browns were granted a few extra yards for the roughing the passer penalty giving them a first and goal at the 4 with 43 seconds left in the game. The Browns had the Rams on the ropes, but Freddie Kitchens was trying to do too much. The next 4 play calls were terrible leading to three straight incompletions, and then an interception by S John Johnson III to seal the Browns defeat. There wasn’t much creativity or even a thought about running the ball with their elite running back, so Freddie Kitchens deserves all the criticism in the world for this loss.
The Browns played with a lot of heart on Sunday Night Football despite being plagued by injuries. The defense played unexpectedly well, and they had a lot of guys step up and make plays. The scheme was better for the most part, but it lacked adjustments, and there was some very bad moments that lead to the Browns downfall. This team definitely has the talent to compete with the best in the league, and it’s great that they proved that. However, they have to be better across the board to be able to win some of these tough games like this. Luckily, the Browns are in position to take sole possession of first place in the AFC North with a win in Baltimore next week, and this loss will hopefully be an afterthought by season’s end. There’s plenty to be cautiously optimistic about, but there is still plenty of room for improvement if the team wants to take the next step.