KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Don Criqui, Steve Beuerlein
SERIES: 18th meeting. The Browns lead the series, 9-8, and they have won two of three playoff games against the Rams. All their success occurred against the Rams of Los Angeles in the pre-expansion era. The Browns are 0-2 against the St. Louis Rams since 1999.
PREDICTION: Browns 23-21
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Browns hope RB Jamal Lewis is able to play and attack the Rams' soft run defense (129.6 yards per game), although St. Louis defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is encouraged by the progress of young DTs Clifton Ryan and Adam Carriker. Browns QB Derek Anderson continues to surprise, but he still has only eight career starts and is shaky on the road -- three touchdowns against five interceptions with a 58.1 passer rating this season. ... The Rams expect RB Steven Jackson to be in the starting lineup, which is an enormous boost as the offense undergoes yet another line shuffle. St. Louis has already used 10 linemen to play a combined 15 different spots. However, the Browns average just one sack per game, so QB Marc Bulger might finally have time to look at more than just his primary receiver.
KEY INJURIES: Browns: Lewis (foot) has been limited in practice, but hopes to start; WR Joe Jurevicius (sore knee) will play. Rams: DE Leonard Little (foot) is out until after the team's bye next week; Jackson (groin) is practicing and will play barring any setbacks; WR Drew Bennett (hamstring) is expected to play; C Brett Romberg (ankle) is out, with LG Andy McCollum sliding to center, RT Milford Brown moving to left guard and Brandon Gorin starting at right tackle.
FAST FACTS: The Browns have scored 20 touchdowns in six games, only five shy of their total for all of last season. ... Bulger is 7-2 with a 103.2 passer rating against the AFC at home.
--The Browns need help desperately in run defense, but general manager Phil Savage said there are no plans to pursue 350-pound Grady Jackson, who was released by the Falcons Tuesday.
--RB Jamal Lewis is still less than 100 percent with an injured right foot, but he will start against the Rams if he has no setbacks.
--Coach Romeo Crennel said all three halfbacks -- Lewis, Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison -- might dress Sunday. Harrison was inactive in four straight games and then he played against the Dolphins when Lewis was inactive with the foot injury.
--P Dave Zastudil is confident he will not misfire as he did against the Dolphins when his only two punts went 37 and 32 yards. An oblique injury prevented him from punting in the three games prior to playing the Dolphins.
--KR Josh Cribbs said the Browns are prepared to counter measures they expect the Rams to take when the Rams try to diminish Cribbs' effectiveness on kick and punt returns.
--WR Dane Looker, who suffered a serious thigh injury against Dallas on Sept. 30, will be active Sunday and also return as the holder for PK Jeff Wilkins.
--WR Drew Bennett will be active Sunday after missing Sunday's game against Seattle because of a hamstring injury. Bennett also missed the season opener with a quad injury and was affected by it for several games. Coach Scott Linehan said Bennett is as healthy now as he has been since before injuring the quad.
--OT Rob Petitti is getting a crash course in the team's offense to prepare for the possibility he might have to play Sunday if another injury occurs. Petitti was signed Wednesday, and is the only backup tackle on the roster aside from Milford Brown, who will start at left guard.
--RB Steven Jackson got through another practice Thursday without incident and appears primed to start for the first time since suffering a partial tear of his groin in Week 3 against Tampa Bay.
--SS Corey Chavous fully participated in practice Thursday after being limited Wednesday because of swelling in his pectoral muscle. Chavous played last week after missing two games because of the injury.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The Browns will find out soon enough whether the tackling drills they have worked on since the bye week last week will result in better run defense.
Sunday in St. Louis the Browns must deal with Steven Jackson, one of the most feared running backs in the league last season. A groin injury forced Jackson to miss the last four games, and even if he is not 100 percent he poses a challenge for the Browns, whose defense ranks last in the NFL.
Middle linebacker Andra Davis said the defense looked at "all the plays that hurt us," during the bye and this week, namely, missed tackles and touchdown passes. There was an untold number of the former and 17 of the latter for players to review.
Any chance the Browns have of making the playoffs hinges on the defense playing better than it did while the offense was carrying the team to a 3-3 record before the bye. They gave up a minimum of 26 points in every game with the exception of a 27-13 victory over the Ravens.
"What you do is concentrate on inconsistencies on defense," coach Romeo Crennel said. "There are some fundamentals and techniques that we need to do better. We can concentrate on those things and if we can do those better, we'll improve. But if we don't do them better, we'll stay right where we are."
Each featured running back the Browns have faced so far this season has rushed for at least 100 yards.
No defensive lineup changes are planned. That means Kamerion Wimbley and Willie McGinest remain as the starting outside linebackers and Davis plus D'Qwell Jackson remain as the starting inside backers with Leon Williams part of the rotation. Left to right the defensive line would be Shaun Smith at end, Ethan Kelly at nose tackle and Robaire Smith at right end.
Davis is not overly concerned about the run defense. He said, "Missed tackles are part of the game." They are a bigger part of the Browns' game than they should be, according to Crennel, but Davis believes they are correctable.
"We have to do a better job of getting people to the ball," Davis said. "If one person misses the tackle, the other guys should be in pursuit. That tends to go unnoticed. If one guy misses the tackle and people are not in pursuit and there's a big play, everybody says the defense can't tackle."
No changes are planned in the secondary, either. Crennel said he pondered switching the roles of safeties Sean Jones and Brodney Pool to give Pool more coverage responsibilities on tight ends, but he has ruled that out.
No help will be coming from Gary Baxter, either, at least not this season. Baxter was placed on injured reserve Tuesday, thus ending his attempt to come back from tearing both patellar tendons in a game against the Broncos last season. The Baxter move was made one year and a day after he was injured in a game against the Broncos. Safety Nick Sorenson, a special teams player, was signed to take Baxter's roster spot.
Running back Steven Jackson might not be 100 percent, but unless there is a setback between now and Sunday, the 2006 scrimmage yards leader in the NFL will be on the field for the first time since Sept. 23.
In the third game of the season, Jackson suffered a partial tear of his groin on wet turf and had missed the last four games. The Rams have yet to win this season, and Jackson is anxious to help get that first victory.
"Maybe in a different scenario it would be different. (But) we're badly in need of a win before the bye," coach Scott Linehan said when asked if there was any consideration given to holding Jackson out of this game because the Rams bye will follow. "It doesn't do us any good to be think post-bye right now."
Jackson has practiced without this issue this week, although he acknowledges practice isn't the same as a game.
"We don't know if I'm 100 percent; you can't simulate game speed," he said. "I go through individual drills. My running backs coach is testing it out and he's doing a great job of working with me on that, so some things I may not think about that may come up in the game, he's making sure I'm getting looks at and he's doing it in a smart way."
As for the mental hurdles he will have to overcome, Jackson said, "I'm pretty sure there will be, but not right now. It would have to get to the point where I'm getting tackled and am uncomfortable breaking arm tackles and things that I (normally) wouldn't think about, but may come up in the game. A groin (injury) is something that feels good, then one day it may have a little tweak here or there."
But he is hopeful his presence will inject some life into a struggling offense that he said has been frustrating to watch.
"It's very tough because you see things ... you'd have a shot here or there," he said. "You see a play you feel like you could have made or bring the morale in the huddle -- just small things that you feel like if you were on the field you could probably turn the ship around. Things happen for a reason and hopefully now we can get this thing turned around."
Said quarterback Marc Bulger, "I'm really excited about Steven coming back; that's probably an understatement. Obviously these other guys did a good job stepping in, but when you're a playmaker like him he can bring linebackers up with play action, so it will help the passing game.
"We're struggling right now putting the ball in the end zone, so I think in the red zone he'll be able to help run the ball in. Any play he touches the ball he can take it all the way and that's something I think we've been missing."
The Rams are currently last in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage, scoring just four times in 19 trips.