Coming off back to back dominant performances, the Cleveland Browns defense should be confident, but the Los Angeles Chargers present a significant challenge with their passing game.
The Chargers passing offense has a number of similarities to the New Orleans Saints brought over when they long time Sean Payton assistant to be their offensive coordinator. They've shown capable scheming open receivers and have a number number of different body types at their disposal that can create mismatches. Beyond having receivers like Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Jared Cook, running back Austin Ekeler is a valuable underneath option that operates as a reliable safety valve that forces defenses to cover a large amount of the field.
Not only do the Browns have to find a way to match up with the threats the Chargers have, but their communication has to be great, so they don't end up getting crossed up and gashed.
The good news for the Browns is their defensive line will once again have a significant advantage. Rookie Rashawn Slater looks like a star and has been the team's best offensive lineman, which is a mixed blessing. Whether he's lined up against Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney or Takkarist McKinley, he will have his hands full.
One of the knocks on Slater going to the NFL had to do with his height and length. At 6'4 1/2" with 33" arms, some thought he might be better suited to play guard. He's more than proven himself capable at tackle, but that lack of length could make it more difficult to get to the edge against the Browns, which has been a featured part of their defensive strategy.
Center Corey Linsley and guard Oday Aboushi are playing pretty well. The challenge for the Chargers is that backup right tackle Storm Norton has really struggled thus far. Matt Feiler has played like an absolute monster in the running game, but he his pass protection has been downright scary at times.
At the level the Browns defensive line has been playing, they should be able to slow down the Chargers running game and put pressure on quarterback Justin Herbert, which is critical if the Browns are going to win.
How the Browns cover Ekeler out of the backfield will be interesting. They could simply put Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah on him wherever he goes. They could cut the field in half where the direction he releases dictates which linebacker or safety picks him up in coverage. Sione Takitaki has done pretty well in coverage, particularly in limiting backs out of the backfield.
The Browns signed Lawrence Cager to their practice squad in order to try to simulate the presence of Mike Williams. The 6'4" 220 pound Williams is the Chargers leading receiver, which is a difficult matchup for the sleek set of corners the Browns have.
Greg Newsome is going to be out for his second game as he continues recovering from a calf injury, so it'll come down to Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward. Williams has more length, but both are punching up a few weight classes. Cager is with the team to help them acclimate against that type of size and physicality. Ward has experience trying to cover Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, so that might prove valuable if he's lined up across from Williams.
If the approach the Browns had against Allen Robinson of the Chicago Bears is a hint, the Browns might utilize safety help as they did with Grant Delpit at points in that matchup.
Keenan Allen is a challenging matchup because he's a precision route runner who can line up all over the formation. So depending on the situation, he could find himself up against a boundary corner or someone like Troy Hill in the slot.
Jared Cook is a mismatch against most teams and he's not going to be easy for the Browns to cover, but they do have an interesting amount of options. They haven't been afraid to deploy Delpit in coverage. Ronnie Harrison could end up on him. Increasingly, the Browns have been hinting to possibly have Delpit drop into the deep middle while John Johnson can come up in coverage as a way to disguise their coverage and enable Johnson to utilize his excellent skills in man to man.
This game will likely come down to a chess match between Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods and Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. If the Browns sit in zone too much, the Chargers may simply run their flood concepts that make reads more challenging. If the Browns try to rely too heavily on man, the Chargers may utilize more combinations that can rub or isolate matchups they like.
The Browns are not lacking for talent or athleticism in their defense to have a productive matchup. It's entirely about their execution, switching up their looks to both keep Lombardi's play calling on his toes and try to confuse Justin Herbert. Should they have success in causing Herbert to hesitate, the Browns pass rush not only get home, but start creating big plays and potentially generate a turnover.
Unless the Browns can muster their third dominant defensive performance in a row where they can completely shut down the opponent's offense, such a turnover could be critical to coming away with a victory. The Browns defense has yet to recover a fumble this season and a strip sack could be the type of game changing play that could completely swing a football game.
As they did against both Justin Fields and Kirk Cousins, the Browns will likely try to put the game in the hands of Herbert while limiting his options and trying to put consistently pressure on him. If he's good enough to beat them as Patrick Mahomes was in the season opener, they deserve it. If not, the Browns could come away with another huge road win as well as their fourth win in a row this week.