Friday, October 12, 2018

Buckle up for an air show

 When the Browns and Los Angeles Chargers hook up Sunday in Cleveland, the fans likely will be treated to a scoring bonanza.

That’s because the Chargers give up nearly as much as they dish out, a clear sign the goal lines will be visited often throughout the afternoon.

The Chargers do not have a tough time at all putting points on the scoreboard. In fact, scoring comes easily. It’s on the other side of the football where they encounter all kinds of problems.

The Chargers, who drag a two-game winning streak into town, average 27.4 points a game, second-highest in the AFC and fifth-highest in the National Football League, and have to literally outpoint the opposition to win.

That’s because their defense surrenders 26 points a game and in no way provides any sort of relief for the offense. All of which should have Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley frothing with excitement.

The Cleveland offense seems considerably different than the one that showed up for the first two games. That’s because rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield seems to be settling in and looks more comfortable by the snap.

The last time the Browns faced a questionable defense, Mayfield & Co. put up 42 points in that lamentable overtime loss to the Raiders in Oakland. The Chargers, it would seem, should expect much of the same offensive behavior from the Browns Sunday.

Until they held the Raiders to just 10 points last Sunday, the Chargers’ defense allowed 30 points a game. Most of the damage came in losses to Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams, a couple of unbeaten teams.

It is said that West Coast teams traveling through three times zones to play a game favors the home team. That doesn’t seem to bother the Chargers, who are 8-5-1 by the lakefront.

Where the Browns have a possible edge is on defense. Throw out that 45-point game against Oakland and the Cleveland defense has permitted 68 points in the other four games, just 17 points a game.

For the second week in a row, that defense will face a passer who has completed 70% of his passes with an impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last Sunday, it effectively shut down Baltimore’s Joe Flacco. This Sunday, Philip Rivers is the target.

Rivers has feasted on the Browns over the years. In six games, he has completed nearly 62% of his passes for 1,762 yards (294 a game), eight touchdowns and only one interception. Among them are four 300-yard games.

The Chargers’ arsenal this season provides numerous weapons for Rivers, now in his 15th National Football League season of throwing passes with his unorthodox delivery. He has thrown for nearly 300 yards a game, 13 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.

The Chargers’ high-powered offense presents a more difficult challenge for the Browns for a couple of different reasons. Rivers’ offensive line has protected him brilliantly this season, allowing just six sacks. And he has better receivers than the Ravens.

Wide receivers Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams and running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are his favorite targets and he loves to spread the ball around. They combine for 102 receptions, nearly 1,300 yards, 11 touchdowns and 20 catches of at least 20 yards.

Gordon and Ekeler have combined to provide more than 100 yards a game rushing this season in addition to being sure-handed receivers out of the backfield. The Browns’ inability to adequately cover backs coming out of the backfield as receivers has been problem, one the Chargers are almost certain to exploit.

Gordon, who has scored the club’s three touchdowns on the ground in addition to three more through the air, is the main man for the Chargers, averaging 67 yards a game. He and Ekeler have totaled six runs of at least 20 yards.

It’s the Chargers’ defense, however, the Browns should be able to take advantage of, especially since All-Pro defensive end Joey Bosa is still unable to play because of a lingering foot injury. His absence has clearly had a deleterious effect on the defense.

That should work to the benefit of the Cleveland offense now that Mayfield is in charge. Since taking over for Tyrod Taylor near the end of the first half of the New York Jets victory, he has posted impressive numbers.

The Browns have generated 75 points when he has the huddle. That covers nine full quarters, a sliver of a 10th and two overtimes. He has thrown for 838 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in what amounts to roughly two-and-a-half games.

He has piloted two victories – I am arbitrarily giving him the Jets victory although Taylor started the game and technically gets credit– and lost one. And that one would have been a third victory except for a highly questionable reversal of a spot of tthe football by the replay officials.

The Cleveland offense should flourish against the Chargers’ defense, which yields 366 yards a game, a 66% completion rate to opposing quarterbacks, 11 touchdowns and 270 yards through the air.

On third down, the Los Angeles defense permits 45% successful conversions. On the plus side, it has 11 sacks, led by rookie safety Derwin James’ three, and six picks.

The points should start to roll early, at least by the Chargers, and keep up a steady stream throughout in what could be an old-fashioned American Football League shootout where defense is an innocent bystander.

If recent history is any indication, it might take the Browns a quarter or so to get started (they have scored only six points in the opening 15 minutes this season). Not so the Chargers, who have scored 35 first-quarter points.

Mayfield will be hampered by a thinning receivers corps, losing Rashard Higgins in last Sunday’s overtime victory over the Ravens and rookie Derrick Willies, who broke his collarbone in practice Friday, just days after his 39-yard catch and run helped the put the Ravens game away.

That probably means more reps for Duke Johnson Jr., wideouts Rod Streater and rookie Damion Ratley and tight ends David Njoku and Seth DeValve.

It puts added pressure on the Cleveland defense, which has given up only 16 points in the first quarter. If it can negate the offense’s slow starts, the mystery of the outcome should linger until late in the second half.

Mayfield and Rivers will exchange touchdown passes with minimum focus on the running game, providing an entertaining afternoon for the fans, many of whom have undoubtedly jumped back onto the Browns’ bandwagon with their recent success.

This could be one of those games where the team that owns the ball last emerges with the victory. And right now, it looks as though the Chargers have the firepower to overcome their defensive inadequacies and win their third straight game, ending the Browns’ two-game winning streak at home. But it won’t be easy. Make it:

Chargers 34, Browns 27

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