It was the Los Angeles Rams defense that was the top takeaway in Sunday’s 36-19 win over the Cleveland Browns with both grizzled veterans and precocious rookies stepping up as L.A. inched their way into second place in the NFC West.
This win was strong because of how they won. Cleveland was not about to quit, they scored on two long second half drives and were within a point with 6:51 left in the game. But the Rams didn’t soften up and let them move down the field, from that mark the Browns had three more possessions and -20 net yards, an interception, and a safety.
Wounded or not, knocking off a good Browns team that is still in the heat of a division battle is a good win. The Rams played their standard bend-but-don’t-break game, relatively close to the season averages in yards given up, score, and third down conversions. Big plays of 20+ yards still rear their ugly heads, the Rams gave up five on the day.
Explosive plays allowed on defense through 13 weeks pic.twitter.com/amdh5JbO7a— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) December 5, 2023
Here’s how the L.A. defense did it, drive by drive.
In the Rams 12 games, they have allowed opening drive scores in eight and missed field in a ninth, so in what has become the norm, the Browns took the opening kickoff 75 yards on nine plays for a touchdown. It was capped by a running back (RB) leaking out completely uncovered on a wheel route that covered the final 24 yards. Browns 7, Rams 0.
A quick three and out. Two short runs that the defensive line played well and a pass by quarterback (QB) Joe Flacco into coverage that safety (S) John Johnson knocked away after a nice read/react move. Browns 7, Rams 3.
The Brownies took to the air. On the first play, QB Flacco hit his tight end down the seam, with linebacker (LB) Troy Reeder on in sticky coverage. Reeder was tightly on him, but didn’t get his eyes around to make a play on the ball. After the 23 yard gain, Flacco threw two swing passes, one incomplete under pressure, while the second was well-defended by cornerback (CB) Derion Kendrick for a loss. On third and long, Flacco threw one away deep over everybody. Rams 10, Browns 7.
Defensive tackles (DT) Bobby Brown and Kobie Turner both made nice inside moves to stop this drive. Brown got inside postion on an outside and drove the Cleveland center (C) back deep into the backfield for a six yard loss, while Turner used a swim move and showed good lateral movement to stop a third down run at the line of scrimmage. Rams 10, Browns 7.
Another three and out. The Browns opened with a swing pass that was reacted to quickly by LB Ernest Jones and backed up by E Keir Thomas for no gain. It was followed by a quick out that was tightly covered by CB Ahkello Witherspoon but went for six and the short third down pass was dropped. Rams 10, Browns 7.
L.A. forces its third three and out of the half. LB Jones shot the A gap to stop a run, CB Kendrick reacted to a short pass and timed the hit to break it up, and on third down, QB Joe Flacco threw it away long down the sideline. Rams 10, Browns 7.
CB Derion Kendrick bites on a double move and gets beat deep for 42 yards, Rams E Byron Young gets pinned inside and a Brownie RB gets 10 around the corner, Kendrick makes a penalty, and boom, Cleveland is knocking at the red zone door in a little over a minute. But the Rams stiffen withs short run and two incomplete passes to force a field goal. Rams 10, Browns 10.
On the Browns opening drive of the second half, they used 15 plays and 7:34 of clock only to stall inside the 10 and settle for a field goal to tie the game. The Rams were unable to apply pass rush pressure and QB Flacco did the damage through the air, throwing 10 times into the umbrella coverage. With first down on the Rams eight, a short run gained two, on second down good coverage forced Flacco to the throw the ball away high in the end zone and on third, CB Witherspoon used every inch of his arm length to knock away a pass at the pylon. Rams 13, Browns 13.
As the third quarter fades into the fourth, Cleveland goes on its second straight scoring drive. It was a grinding 13 play march with only one play over 10 yards. When the Rams were able to get some pressure on QB Flacco, he threw it away quickly and when he had time he settled for the underneath stuff. The Browns converted three short third downs on the ground and had 37 rushing yards on the touch down drive. Rams 20, Browns 19.
One play only. QB Flacco throws a deep lollipop, well underthrown and S John Johnson tracks it for an interception. DT Larrell Murchison might have helped helped by driving his blocker into Flacco’s follow through. Rams 20, Browns 19.
Down eight points with 3:48 to play, the Browns crossed up L.A. and ran the ball on consecutive plays for over nine yards. On third and inches, the the Brownies interior line moved to put the ball back five yards. The Rams blitzed on third down and QB Flacco threw wide and on fourth down pressure was sent again. Flacco had to throw quickly and S Russ Yeast broke up the pass with sticky man coverage underneath on the tight end forcing a turnover on downs. Rams 27, Browns 19.
Now up 15 points, the Rams defensive line gets to pin their ears back. They harass QB Flacco into an intentional grounding penalty, a sack by DT Kobie Turner, and finally, another sack in the end zone for a safety. On the two pointer, DT Aaron Donald loops around Turner and just blows up an offensive lineman, driving him seven yards back into the QB. Rams 36, Browns 19.
I think a big takeaway is the Browns run/pass ratio, I expected them to pound away on the ground and try to exploit the advantage they had with their offensive line. 44 passes are the most they’ve thrown in a game all year and 23 rushes are their least, they average 33.
Opposing teams have had success with the short passing game versus the Rams and Joe Flacco, off the street or not, is a veteran who has proven he can navigate an offense. On Sunday he was able to find his receivers and certainly not going to hold the ball too long. While he has good career numbers, Flacco is not really the type to carry a team on his shoulders and it appeared Cleveland was starting to try and flex their run game muscle in the second half, but the interception by Joe Flacco and the Rams subsequent touchdown forced them to stay with the pass.
Troy Reeder started opposite Ernest Jones at linebacker and had 19 snaps to Christian Rozeboom’s 11. ‘Boom was not on any injury report and played his full ration of special teams. I cannot say there’s a big difference with one or the other in lineup. The Rams may be moving towards more nickel and dime formations down the stretch. They lined up in those sets quite a bit on Sunday, and with John Johnson’s play and Quentin Lake almost mended, that looks the way the defense is going. Coaches looking to veterans as going gets tough.
On the edge, Ochaun Mathis did not play and his name was not included on injury lists. Keir Thomas took over as primary backup and only spelled both Michael Hoecht and Byron Young for 15 plays total. The lack of depth and rotation is a bit concerning, Young has not had a sack or QB hit since the Green Bay loss and while I don’t have his pressure numbers over that time, he doesn’t appear to be pressing the pocket as he did earlier. Starting to wear down a little?
“Bring on the Ravens!”, say I and Edgar Allen Poe
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore, Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted— On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!” Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”