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NFL Preview - St. Louis (1-7) at Cleveland (3-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There's nothing like a get-well game, even for a downtrodden team.
For the St. Louis Rams, who fell short in a bid to seal a second consecutive win last week, the chance at a two out-of-three stretch after an inglorious 0-6 start takes them this Sunday to Cleveland.
There, the Rams will visit Cleveland Browns Stadium for a chance to compete with that facility's primary inhabitants of the same name in a Week 9 matchup alongside Lake Erie.
One week after breaking its winless skid with a dominant defeat of the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis surrendered a game-tying touchdown against Arizona in the final five minutes, had a game-winning field goal try blocked and subsequently lost in overtime on a 99-yard punt return that gave the Cardinals a 19-13 victory.
But while the Rams allowed just 262 yards, keeping an opponent below 300 for the second straight game, it wasn't enough to offset a struggling offense that's averaged fewer than 13 points per game.
St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford may revel in the chance to challenge a Browns defense that resembles a MASH unit with a host of dinged-up players, including safety T.J. Ward (foot), cornerback Dimitri Patterson (knee) and safety Usama Young (hip).
Bradford, who'd missed two games of his own with a sprained left ankle before returning last week, completed 23-of-36 passes for 255 yards and an interception against the Cardinals.
"I missed some throws that I normally would make," Bradford said. "That's what was frustrating to me. On some of the deep balls, I wasn't even close. That's just me not being out there."
The Rams lost rookie wideout Greg Salas to a broken right leg in the loss, but may be aided by the return of veteran Mark Clayton from knee and Achilles� concerns. He was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Wednesday.
Cleveland, meanwhile, has its own offensive maladies.
Running backs Peyton Hillis (hamstring) and Montario Hardesty (calf) are unlikely to play for a second straight week, and receiver Mohamed Massaquoi is enduring post-concussion symptoms and is also doubtful.
Without Hillis and Hardesty last week, fill-ins Chris Ogbonnaya and Thomas Clayton combined for 38 yards on 18 carries in a 30-12 loss to Houston.
In addition, quarterback Colt McCoy has averaged 188.3 passing yards over his last three games, including a season-low 146 in the loss to the Texans.
"We just have to be consistent and just trust the scheme," Ogbonnaya said. "Sometimes it's tough. We've played a couple of great defenses the past couple of weeks."
The Rams surrender 153.6 rushing yards per game, while Cleveland allows 144 per week. St. Louis running back Steven Jackson, meanwhile, has gained 289 rushing yards in the past two games.
"He's a tough guy to bring down," Cleveland head coach Pat Shurmur said of Jackson. "He's a key reason why I think in the last couple games they've found a way to move the ball."
Jackson had 41 yards and a touchdown in his lone career game against Cleveland in 2007, before leaving with lower back spasms in the second quarter.
Sunday's game also pits Shurmur against his ex-team and longtime friend in counterpart Steve Spagnuolo. The former served as St. Louis' offensive coordinator from 2009-10 before being hired by the Browns in January.
The overall regular-season series between the Browns and Rams, who resided in Cleveland from 1937 through 1945, is knotted at 9-9, with the Browns evening the set by virtue of a 27-20 triumph in St. Louis in 2007. The Rams had won two straight in the set prior to that defeat, posting a 34-3 home rout in 1999 and a 26-20 road victory in 2003.
The clubs also met three times for the NFL Championship between 1950 and 1955, with the Browns prevailing in 1950 and 1955 and the then-Los Angeles Rams winning in 1951.
The Rams are 4-6 all-time against the Browns in games played in the city they once occupied.
Both Spagnuolo and Shurmur, who also worked together for eight seasons on Andy Reid's staff from 1999-2006, will be facing one another -- as well as their opponent's respective teams -- for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bradford won the 2008 Heisman Trophy ahead of Cleveland's McCoy, who finished a close second in the balloting (Bradford received 1,726 voting points to McCoy's 1,604). The St. Louis quarterback has posted a 100-plus rating three times in his career, and the Rams are 3-0 when he does so. Jackson has rushed for 289 yards in his past two games and had a rush touchdown in the teams' last meeting back in 2007. Since 2006, Jackson averages 116.2 yards from scrimmage per game (9,064 yards, 78 games), the most in the NFL of players with a minimum of 50 games over that stretch. Since the start of 2010, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd ranks third in the NFL with 1,938 receiving yards, while fellow wideout Brandon Gibson aims for a fifth game in a row against the AFC with three or more catches. Rookie wide receiver Austin Pettis had 112 total yards (43 receiving, 43 kick returns, 26 punt returns) last week.
On defense, Cleveland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson posted his first interception since December of 2008 last week and leads the team with 73 tackles. Cornerback Joe Haden leads the Browns with 10 passes defensed and fourth-year tackle Ahtyba Rubin has 39 tackles and three sacks.
Statistically, St. Louis is in the bottom half in all major offensive categories, ranking 31st in scoring (12.5 ppg), 23rd in total yards (314.1 ypg), 26th in passing (202.8 ypg) and 18th in rushing yards (111.4 ypg). The Browns are 13th in scoring defense (21.2 ppg), sixth in total yards allowed (309.2 ypg), first against the pass (165.2 ypg) and 30th against the run (144.0 ypg).
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
The Browns have won two of their past three games at home in November, and in four November starts, McCoy has completed 63-of-100 passes (63 percent) for 766 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and an 88.2 passer rating. A seventh-round draft pick of the Rams in 2009, running back Ogbonnaya spent one season in St. Louis. Tight end Benjamin Watson needs seven catches to reach 100 with the Browns, while the injured Massaquoi averages 16.7 yards per catch against the NFC (21 receptions, 351 yards) for his career. Wide receiver Greg Little, a second-round pick in last April's draft ranks second in the NFL among rookies with 31 receptions, trailing only Cincinnati's A.J. Green (40). Wide receiver Joshua Cribbs aims for a third straight game with a touchdown reception and has a career-best three scoring grabs in 2011.
For the St. Louis defense, end Chris Long has four sacks in his past two games and aims for a third in a row with one. He also aims for a fifth contest in a row against AFC foes with a sack and has five sacks in his past four matchups against the AFC. Tackle Fred Robbins has a sack in two of his last four games with AFC foes, while end James Hall has four sacks in five games against the AFC and a sack in two of his last three overall tests. End Robert Quinn aims for third game in row with a sack and is tied for second among NFC rookies with three quarterback takedowns. Safety Darian Stewart aims for a third straight game with an interception or forced fumble, while middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has 61 tackles, a sack and an interception on the season.
By the numbers, Cleveland�s offense is 29th in scoring (14.9 ppg), 30th in total yards (289.0 ypg), 25th in passing (206.9 ypg) and 31st in rushing (82.1 ypg). On defense, the Rams are 29th in points allowed (26.4 ppg), 24th in total yards allowed (375.9 ypg), 12th against the pass (222.2 ypg) and dead last against the run (153.6 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
St. Louis' run defense is worst in the league through its nine games, but could at least hold on to respectability against the Browns' something-less-than- front-line backs.
McCoy, who averaged 240 passing yards per game through the season's first four weeks, has got to rediscover that connection with his young receivers or veteran tight end Watson to get Cleveland's slumping offense on track.
Though the defensive numbers aren't impressive, the Rams have shown a talent at getting after the quarterback, and that could be augmented this week by Cleveland's injured backfield and struggles in the run game.
Two weeks ago, one of these teams was .500 and the other hadn't won a game. But fortunes have changed drastically for the pair, which now includes a team that soundly defeated an NFC power and another that's slowly sliding to irrelevance in the AFC North. Given the matchups and the injury list, go with that momentum and the Heisman passer every time.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Rams 17, Browns 10
11/10 15:00:35 ET
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