Here are five keys to the game heading into the Week 13 match between the Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns:
1. The Josh Gordon Factor – Absolutely no one, and I mean no one, knows what we'll see when Josh Gordon takes the field for the first time in three years on Sunday. Will he be the same elite receiver he was in 2013, when he led the NFL in receiving yards on his way to earning first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors? Or will he be rusty after such a lengthy layoff? While no one knows the answer, it's clear the Bolts expect the former. The team knows Gordon is capable of single-handedly wrecking a game, and thus have all the respect in the world for his talent. Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley couldn't help but gush about the Browns receiver while admitting he is difficult to prepare for:
"Extremely talented. Very athletic. Operates in space very well. He can have a 200-yard game, easily. Back then, he was on the rise and really doing well. (He was) someone across the league they were talking about…. It's tough (to prepare for him). You go back and watch tape, and you don't know from that year to where he is now. We're assuming he's going to come in ready to play. We know the type of player he is and the style of player he is and what he's effective at. It's hard to go back and show a lot of tape on it. We just have to prepare for everyone like we normally do."
2. Continue Takeaway Tear – The key to the Chargers' strong play of late has been the turnover differential. While the offense has protected the rock, the defense has been the best in the league at taking it away. After forcing six turnovers against the Bills in Week 11, L.A. forced another two to seal the Thanksgiving win in Dallas. Not only are they getting their hands on the ball, but the Bolts are doing damage with three defensive touchdowns over the two-game span. The team must keep that going against a Browns team who leads the league in giveaways. Bradley weighed in on the team's success of late in that department:
"I think you start believing in it when it does take place. We talk to our guys about, we're defined by that — our ability to get the ball and score. It's not just by getting the ball, we want to have that mentality to score, too. That's what we preach in OTAs. We're defined by our ability to get the ball and score. That's what we always want to go after, unless the situation doesn't present itself. So when you have times that you see us, the vision comes alive. When you have an example — 'See? This is what we're talking about.' We got a pick for a touchdown. We got a sack-caused fumble, a strip for a touchdown. When those opportunities present themselves, we talk to them about it. Our vision is starting to come to where we are. We have a lot of work to do, but you're seeing a lot of progress."
3. Not Taking Browns Lightly – When the Bolts watch the tape, they don't see an 0-11 Browns team. They've talked all week about how hard Cleveland plays, and how close they are to putting it all together. After losing to a winless Browns team last December, the Chargers also know they can't afford to take the foot off the gas. Head Coach Anthony Lynn best summed up how L.A. feels about the Browns:
"I tell you, getting ready for this team, Hue Jackson doesn't make it easy. They line up in a lot of multiple formations, they're trying to slow down the defense and catch you off guard. And it's a lot to prepare for. You look at their offense and there's an explosive player at every skill position. So they can make plays. They can make things happen. On defense, they're doing a hell of a job on stopping the run. That's something they have emphasized and you can see it coming into play. They have talent. They are a young, talented team that at some point, it's going to click, and they're going to put it all together. On special teams, Jabrill (Peppers) is a dynamic punt returner. Matthew (Dayes) has a 71-yarder and a 53-yarder this year on kick returns, so they're pretty explosive…. I can't believe that someone would call this a trap game. This is a good football team, they're coming into our place and we've got to be ready to play."
4. Ignore the Hype – No team has received more love of late than the Los Angeles Chargers. They've skyrocketed up the power rankings and are a trendy pick to do damage as we enter December. Big deal. Lynn maintains his team is tuning out the hype. While the Bolts have gone 5-2 over the last seven games, they are still 5-6 and looking to get to .500. Lynn explained the team's mindset as they get ready to host the Browns:
"We're still fighting. Right now, we're not even 'bowl eligible.' We're trying to get to that next win. And that's the way we still have to look at it. We're still the hunters, not the hunted. I know we're a game out in our division, but we have some catching up to do."
5. Contain Kizer – The Bolts had success against a rookie quarterback two weeks ago in Nathan Peterman. Now they look to have a similar level of success against Cleveland's DeShone Kizer. However, they are totally different situations. Peterman was making his first career start while Kizer has taken the majority of snaps under center for the Browns. The second-round pick out of Notre Dame has completed 166 of 313 attempts for 1,823 yards (53.0-percent), five touchdowns and 14 picks for a 57.2 passer rating. He's also run the ball 54 times for 262 yards (4.9 ypc) and another five scores. He's had success running the read-option, so Bradley noted how the team must zero in on stopping it:
"I think when you see it, especially if they're effective — if you start seeing them have success with it, you're going to see it more and more and more. It's something that we're aware of. But they have a wide variety of things that they're forcing us to prepare for. We could see anything from unbalanced to daffy duck to wildcat. There's just different things that they do.... You've got to be on it on all your calls, and what you want to get to and if they have success at something, they're going to keep coming after it."