After a mini ‘bye-week’, the Chargers (5-6) come back home to face the winless, Cleveland Browns (0-11).
Cleveland is coming into this game off a road division loss in Cincinnati. Where, for the 6th time this season, they have conceded 30 points or more. One positive to say about the Browns is that their Quarterback merry-go-round has come to a halt in the last few weeks. Rookie DeShone Kizer has been pulled from many games by Head Coach Hue Jackson, in replacement for either Kevin Hogan or Cody Kessler. Kizer looks to have always been the guy that Jackson wants to move forward with but has been protecting him because of several poor performances. He only has 5 passing touchdowns on the year, to go with his 14 interceptions. However, Kizer has made it work using his legs by scoring 5 rushing touchdowns, which leads his team.
The Chargers are approaching this one with an extra bit of rest after playing last Thursday, on Thanksgiving. A compromising win against Dallas on primetime has put them right in the eye of viewers and ‘experts’ as one of the form teams in the NFL. Shockingly, after their 0-4 start, they only find themselves one game back from division leaders, Kansas City. With the position they find themselves in, it would be costly to put up a poor performance like they have done in previous years against Cleveland.
This will be the fourth time these two teams have matched up against each other in the past six seasons, and they’ve all been quite eventful and memorable. The first, in 2012, became unforgettable for Charger fans when Robert Meachem dropped a certain go-ahead touchdown in the snow, in Cleveland. The Bolts could only manage two field goals as they fell to the Browns, 7-6.
The second took place in 2015, in San Diego. 27 points all. A game-winning attempt missed by former Chargers’ kicker Josh Lambo as the game expired. Except, the Browns being the Browns, were lined up offside. Take two, Lambo didn’t miss this time and the Chargers get lucky. The luck that Lambo got then, was not to be replicated in last year’s fixture. This time it was a game-tying field goal for Lambo. Blocked. Two minutes later, as time expired, he put it wide of the posts and the Browns got their one and only win of the season.
Even with their 0-11 record, the Browns do have a few players that might be able to hurt this Chargers team.
Interior OL (Browns) vs Interior DL (Chargers)
The loss of All-Pro Left Tackle Joe Thomas hurt the Browns on the outside of their offensive line hugely, but they still have a lot of ability in the middle. Offseason acquisitions Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter have joined up with former Pro Football Focus All-Pro Joel Bitonio. The trio has helped the Browns gain an average of 107.4 yards a game, which is good for 17th in the league, a fair bit better than the Chargers 93.2. The Browns average took a dip two weeks ago going up against a very strong defensive line in Jacksonville, however, recovered against the Bengals last week, totaling 169 yards.
In terms of the runners behind the OL, Isaiah Crowell has a hefty lead in the carries with 145, averaging 3.8 yards per attempt. On the other hand, Duke Johnson has significantly fewer carries (52) and is averaging 5.3. Each RB has 2 TDs apiece. As I mentioned at the beginning, QB DeShone Kizer has been successful running the football and has two more carries than Johnson, with a similar average of 4.9.
The Chargers run defense as a whole has been very poor this year. In fact, they are rock bottom of the league in yards given away per game (133.5). There have been many contributing factors such as the missed tackles and the linebacker play but the middle of the DL has been especially disappointing. The starters Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget have struggled consistently at the point of the attack and are sometimes driven down multiple yards of the field. They will need to stand strong against this physical interior offensive line that the Browns possess.
DE Myles Garrett vs LT Russell Okung
Another positive aspect of the Browns this year has been 1st overall pick, Myles Garrett. The rookie has only played 6 games for his team so far after having to recover from an injury earlier in the season. In those games, he has 5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hits. It’s fair to say he has hit the ground running since coming into the line-up.
Unluckily for Garrett, he’s going up against Left Tackle Russell Okung. Who, in my opinion, has been one of the most underrated players this year. He’s been a big reason as to why Quarterback Philip Rivers has had time to find his plethora of receivers. Additionally, he’s created a brilliant relationship with Rookie Left Guard Dan Feeney in the run game.
Doesn’t matter who you are supporting on Sunday, this will be a great football battle to watch.
WR Josh Gordon vs CB Casey Hayward
I can’t really go through this preview without mentioning the return of Josh Gordon. The wide-out will be playing his first game since the end of 2014. In ’15 and ’16, Gordon was subject to suspension after failing to comply with the NFL’s substance abuse policy. This is his first opportunity to return this year after being able to practice for the last two weeks. Coach Jackson has said he will be put straight in with the starters. This is not shocking given the state of the Browns’ wide receiver group. RB Duke Johnson leads the team in receptions with 50, almost double the next best man (26).
Albeit great news for Gordon, it means his first matchup will be against Casey Hayward, arguably the best corner in the league. Subject to PFF’s rankings, he is their highest rated cornerback with a score of 96.8, almost 4 points better than the next best player. Additionally, he has 3 of the top 4 scores by a CB in an individual week and the highest percentage of targets that have been intercepted or batted away, in the league. Hayward won the latest AFC Defensive Player of the Month Award and I believe he’s an under the radar player for Defensive Player of the Year.
Hayward has not practiced this week after spending time with his family, after learning about the death of his brother earlier in the week. He has told teammates that he still plans to play in the game, which I can only imagine would be an incredibly difficult thing to do. His status has been set as questionable going into Sunday.
Thankfully, there are not too many injuries to report this week. The Browns have one player OUT; receiver Sammie Coates will not play due to knee and ankle problems. Every other Brown had a full practice on Friday.
For the Chargers, to go with Hayward; Corey Liuget and Nick Novak are also questionable. Novak has been struggling with a back injury that has hampered him for weeks now. If he’s not 100% to Chargers signed a former Brown, Travis Coons, up to the practice squad as they will want to avoid another debacle like in Dallas. Rookie receiver Mike Williams is OUT after injuring his knee on his first snap, in that game against the Cowboys.
This truly should be a walk for the Bolts. Getting to 6-6 will keep them in the hunt, but a loss and it could end their season. If they do their fundamentals correctly, it could get embarrassing for the Browns, however, the Chargers don’t normally do it that simple. 27-10, Chargers.