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Battered Browns Will Be Tested As Showdown with Rams Looms Large

Despite going 1-1 over the first two weeks of the 2019 NFL season, the Cleveland Browns have not lived up to the wild expectations from the national media. The defense has been solid, but the offense, which is one of the most talented groups in all of football, has yet to find its rhythm, and that starts with second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield.

The Los Angeles Rams were already going to be a very tough opponent to beat, but now the Browns have become ravaged by injuries at key positions, making their Sunday Night Football matchup all the more difficult.

The injury report on Thursday was longer than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Odell Beckham Jr., Dontrell Hilliard, and Austin Seitbert were all full participants, but the rest of the list isn’t as encouraging.

Joel Bitonio, Rashard Higgins, Larry Ogunjobi, Denzel Ward, and Greedy Williams were all limited.

And none of Morgan Burnett, Chris Hubbard, Christian Kirksey, Kendall Lamm, David Njoku, Damarious Randall, and Adarius Taylor practiced at all.

That’s a total of 10 starters who were either limited or out. Things didn’t get much better on Friday as the team released statuses for Sunday’s game.

Kirksey, Njoku, and Lamm are officially out, to no surprise. Randall will miss his second consecutive game with a concussion. Williams, Ward, Burnett, Sheldrick Redwine, Higgins, Taylor, Hubbard, and Chris Smith are all questionable. Rookie linebacker Mack Wilson also missed practice on Friday due to a personal issue, but is expected to start on Sunday.

NFL teams carry 53 players on the active roster and can play 46 each game. Right now, Cleveland has only 42 healthy players. That’s a big problem. It’s unlikely that everyone listed as questionable will miss the game, but it’s also unrealistic to expect them all to play.

This plethora of injuries comes at a very bad time for the team. The Rams present a tough matchup for a fully healthy Browns squad, and if there’s any coach who can exploit an opposing defense’s injuries, it’s Sean McVay. The loss of Njoku eliminates a weapon from Cleveland’s offense. He hasn’t yet scratched the surface of his potential, but Njoku is still an athletic freak who poses a mismatch threat for any defense; he’s too big for a DB to cover, and too quick and athletic for an LB. Demetrius Harris, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Pharaoh Brown will attempt to replace him.

Bitonio was questionable for the Jets game, and will play on Sunday. The Browns will need their best offensive lineman to be at full strength, as Aaron Donald is coming to town. Hubbard is Cleveland’s starting right tackle, and while he isn’t a great player by any stretch, his backup is former Packer Justin McCray, a guard by trade, who was forced to fill in at RT against Tennessee, and struggled mightily.

Higgins was injured in the Titans game and missed Week 2. It’s clear that Mayfield misses him, as Higgins has been a reliable security blanket for the young QB since his first day of training camp. Beckham and Jarvis Landry form one of, if not the best WR duo in the NFL, but Higgins is an underappreciated player who is extremely valuable to the offense, and not having him on the field would be an issue.

As bad as the injuries are on offense, the defense is in even worse shape. Kirksey is the group’s vocal leader, and he will be missed. His chest injury is rumored to be a torn pectoral, and while there is nothing official yet, he could be out for a while. His replacement is rookie Mack Wilson, who had a nearly-perfect first preseason game before playing horribly for the next two. He is likely a future long-term starter, but he isn’t ready for action just yet, so look for the Rams to try and confuse him early and often.

The entire starting secondary sans big nickel Jermaine Whitehead could end up missing the game. Randall is already out, and while his absence wasn’t a big deal against the weak air attack of the Jets, things are different this week. Burnett has been a reliable tackler and his status would mean more playing time for raw rookie Redwine, but he’s also questionable. Ward and Williams being hurt is huge; LA has a high-powered offense with three legitimate playmaking receivers in Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp. Terrance Mitchell and T.J. Carrie are both solid, but not as good as Ward and Williams. Things could get out of hand for Cleveland early.

This game was going to be a big test for the Browns; primetime against 2018’s Super Bowl runner-up after two middling performances. This game could have been a litmus test for whether Cleveland was ready to take the next step towards contention, or if they still had a long way to go.

We’ll still learn a lot about the resiliency of the group, and we’ll see if Mayfield can will a hobbled team to victory. But the expectation now is that the Browns don’t have much of a chance. The offseason’s World’s Team is now the underdogs again. It’s up to them to rise to the challenge and push through the adversity.