Week 5 Preview: Chargers Vs. Browns
The Los Angeles Chargers are no doubt riding high after their dominant win over the Las Vegas Raiders last week on Monday Night Football. With the prime-time lights glaring, the Bolts efficiently took care of their business, limiting the explosive Raiders offense to just 213 yards on the night. Three first-half touchdown passes from Justin Herbert and an 11-yard touchdown run from Austin Ekeler in the fourth is all Los Angeles needed to send their division rivals home broken and defeated.
As the tears of Raiders fans continue to dry up, the Powder Blue will have to refocus their attention quickly. Los Angeles faces a short week of preparation before hosting the Cleveland Browns this Sunday at SoFi Stadium. This is sure to be another exciting matchup for the Bolts as both teams boast a 3-1 record and are proving to be legitimate playoff contenders.
The Browns are no joke. They have rattled off three consecutive wins in impressive fashion and almost upset the Kansas City Chiefs earlier in Week 1. Cleveland features the NFL’s premier rushing attack behind their two-headed monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt with the unit already accumulating over 700 yards on the ground. Defensive end Myles Garrett highlights a stingy defense that is surrendering less than 17 points per game.
Let’s take a look at two x-factors and two key matchups that will be crucial to the Chargers’ success this Sunday.
X-Factor 1: Cage the Beast Myles Garrett; Slow Cleveland Pass Rush
The Chargers have faced some serious pass rush defenses so far in the early part of the season, but they all pale in comparison to Cleveland’s unit led by the beastly human who is Garrett. He currently leads the league with six sacks and seven tackles for loss while ranking second with 13 quarterback hits and third with 21 total pressures. Simply put, Garrett is a game-wrecker and can make an impact in multiple different ways.
The scary thing about Cleveland’s pass rush is that Garrett is not alone. Combined with Garret, Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell form one of the most formidable defensive fronts in the league. Altogether the Browns defense has totaled 14 sacks on the year and is generating pressure on 30 percent of their pass rush snaps. If unchecked, this defensive line has shown it has the talent to completely take over a game.
Right tackle Storm Norton, who is filling in for the injured starter Bryan Bulaga, draws another difficult matchup once again. Norton’s play has been erratic, but he will get a chance to prove his worth against his toughest test to date. On the other side of the line, rookie Rashawn Slater looks set for a career-defining game as he has only impressed in his first four appearances. Slater has shined in matchups against Chase Young and Maxx Crosby, only allowing six total pressures all year. If he can replicate some of that production against Cleveland, he will be well on his way to becoming a household name.
Key Matchup 1: Brown’s Run Game Vs. Chargers Run Defense
Even after stifling Las Vegas’s run game on Monday and holding Josh Jacobs and company to just 48 rushing yards, the Charger’s run defense still ranks in the bottom five of the league. Much of that is by design and Head Coach Brandon Staley’s innovative defensive approach. Staley’s system relies on not giving up big plays and almost daring opposing offenses to run the football. He hardly crowds the box and typically has five defensive backs on the field. Though the Chargers have had tons of success with this system, holding all four of their opponents to season-low scoring totals, I expect Staley to switch things up slightly with Cleveland coming to town.
There is no daring the Browns into running the football. That’s what they do. The team’s whole identity is centered around their ground game and they will gladly run down the Chargers’ throats if allowed the opportunity. They enter the weekend averaging 177 rushing yards per game with both Chubb and Hunt averaging over five yards per carry. Upfront, Cleveland’s offensive line is a bruising bunch who would have absolutely no trouble creating running lanes against the lightbox that Staley likes to use. To help combat Cleveland’s heavy running attack, expect to see some more typical 3-4 alignments or the occasional 5-2 formation with five down linemen. Whatever strategy Staley chooses to deploy you can count on it being just as creative as it is effective.
X-Factor 2: Force Baker Mayfield to Beat You
A big part of any football game is to force your opponent out of their comfort zone. This tactic seems extra appropriate when you consider the upcoming matchup against the Browns. Their ability to run the football is their offenses’ biggest strength which just happens to be the Charger’s most glaring weakness. The best way for Los Angeles to defend against the run is to jump out to an early lead and force the Browns to air it out.
Unlike their run game, Cleveland’s passing attack has been nothing to boast about. They have managed only 849 yards passing, the seventh-lowest mark in the league. Starting quarterback Baker Mayfield is dealing with a torn labrum in his non-throwing arm (left) and is coming off his worst performance of the year against the Minnesota Vikings. Mayfield suffered the injury after making a tackle in the Brown’s Week 2 matchup against the Houston Texans and it appears to have had tragic effects. Last week he completed just 15 of 33 passes for 155 yards and was inaccurate most of the day, missing on several seemingly routine plays. After leading the league with an 81.6% completion percentage through the first two weeks, Mayfield’s completion rate has since plummeted to 65.5%.
How much impact Mayfield’s shoulder will have on the outcome of Sunday’s game remains uncertain. Still, it seems like a safe bet that Cleveland will try to lean on its ground game once again against the Chargers. If Los Angeles can get out to an early lead as they have in each of their three wins this season that will put tremendous strain on the Brown’s offense. In a game that features two elite defenses, this could come down to a last-minute scoring drive. If forced to do so will Mayfield be healthy enough to meet the challenge?
Key Matchup 2: Keenan Allen Vs. Banged Up Cleveland Secondary
Receiver Keenan Allen was quietly held in check against the Raiders, finishing with seven catches on 11 targets and 36 yards (season-low). At full strength, Cleveland’s secondary is as good as any in the league but entering Week 5 the Browns are a bit banged up, especially at the cornerback position. First-round draft pick Greg Newsome II has already been ruled out for Sunday as he will be forced to miss his second consecutive game with a calf injury. The next two corners on the depth chart, Denzel Ward (neck) and Troy Hill (toe) are nursing injuries of their own with both being limited participants in Thursday’s practice.
Hoping to fill the void will be 2019 first-round draft pick, Greedy Williams. Williams came down with his first career interception against the Vikings last week but with only 16 career appearances to his name, he is relatively untested. With Newsome officially ruled out and Ward and Hill not at 100 percent, Williams will be tasked with trying to slow down the NFL’s best route runner. Allen is difficult enough to guard as is, but against corners who aren’t completely healthy, this is a matchup that should favor the Chargers tremendously.
Final prediction: Chargers 24 – Browns 14