This matchup won’t be a Fi­esta for them

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Mike DiGio­vanna mike.digio­vanna@la­ Twit­ter @MikeDiGio­vanna

Whether it’s trash talk or friendly ban­ter, you can bet the 2016 Fi­esta Bowl — a na­tional semi­fi­nal game in which Clem­son routed Ohio State 31-0 — will be a topic of con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Charg­ers re­ceiver Mike Wil­liams and Cleve­land rookie cor­ner­back Den­zel Ward on Sun­day.

Wil­liams, the for­mer Clem­son star, got the best of Ward, the for­mer Ohio State stand­out, that night, catch­ing six passes for 96 yards in a blowout that sent the Tigers to the na­tional cham­pi­onship game, where they beat Alabama 35-31.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Wil­liams said, when asked if the col­lege game will come up be­tween the two young pro­fes­sion­als. “It’s two com­peti­tors, two peo­ple who want to be great, two peo­ple who are go­ing to line up and make plays. Hope­fully, our of­fense gets the best of their de­fense and we come out on top.”

Wil­liams did not catch all of those Fi­esta Bowl passes against Ward, but the 6foot-4, 220-pound Wil­liams, the sev­enth over­all pick of the 2017 draft, re­mem­bers one spe­cific first-quar­ter play in which he out­jumped the 5-11, 190-pound Ward at the end of a fade route for a 37-yard gain.

Ward ap­pears well-po­si­tioned to ex­act some re­venge. The fourth over­all pick in last April’s draft, Ward is tied for the NFL lead with three in­ter­cep­tions, in­clud­ing two picks of Pitts­burgh vet­eran Ben Roeth­lis­berger in the sea­son opener.

Ward has 25 tack­les, one forced fum­ble, one fum­ble re­cov­ery and six pass breakups for an im­proved Browns de­fense that ranks 27th in the league in to­tal yards (398.0) and pass­ing yards (281.4) al­lowed per game but has given up only 22.6 points per game, 12th-best in the league.

Cleve­land ranks first in the NFL with a plus-eight turnover dif­fer­en­tial, hav­ing forced 15 turnovers — eight in­ter­cep­tions and seven fum­ble re­cov­er­ies. The Browns were mi­nus-28 in turnover ra­tio in 2017, when they went 0-16.

“He’s a good cor­ner,” Wil­liams, who has caught 15 passes for 249 yards and three touch­downs this sea­son, said of Ward. “He’s helped out their de­fense tremen­dously. We see him cov­er­ing the good re­ceivers and mak­ing plays. They de­pend on him.”

Ward had a big game in last Sun­day’s 12-9 over­time win over Bal­ti­more, in­ter­cept­ing quar­ter­back Joe Flacco once, break­ing up three passes and block­ing an ex­tra-point at­tempt. And he wasn’t alone. Line­backer Jamie Collins had 12 tack­les and a sack and safety Jabrill Pep­pers had four tack­les and two pass breakups.

De­fen­sive line­man Myles Gar­rett, the first over­all pick out of Texas A&M in 2017, has been a force against the pass and the run, notch­ing 21 tack­les and five sacks — he’s tied for fifth in the NFL — for losses of 231⁄2 yards.

“He’s an ex­cep­tional pass-rusher; that’s why he was the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Charg­ers coach An­thony Lynn said of Gar­rett. “But what’s so im­pres­sive about him is he’s also able to stop the run. He’s very un­selfish that way. He’s just a good foot­ball player.”

Un­der sec­ond-year de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Gregg Wil­liams, who was with the Rams in 2016, the Browns are get­ting more pres­sure on the quar­ter­back and bet­ter cov­er­age in the back.

“He has a huge play­book — you never know what de­fense you’re gonna get from Gregg,” Lynn said. “It’s like a Rolodex, and they’re very good in their ex­e­cu­tion. He’s got some weapons to work with … a lot of tools. They’re play­ing well.”

Kick-starter cam­paign

Lynn said Thurs­day that he hoped to have a de­ci­sion on a kicker for Sun­day’s road game by Fri­day. But af­ter Fri­day’s prac­tice, the coach said he had not set­tled on a kicker be­tween Caleb Stur­gis, who was lim­ited all week by a quadri­ceps in­jury and is ques­tion­able for Sun­day, and Michael Bad­g­ley, who was signed Wednesday.

“We have a cou­ple more days,” Lynn said, “so we’ll give Caleb’s leg all the rest we can give it.”

Stur­gis, who signed a two-year con­tract in March af­ter miss­ing most of last sea­son with Philadel­phia be­cause of a hip in­jury, has missed four ex­tra points in the last three games. He is nine for 12 on field-goal at­tempts on the sea­son.

Bad­g­ley, the all-time lead­ing scorer at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami, spent train­ing camp with In­di­anapo­lis but was re­leased be­fore the sea­son.

In­jury up­dates

Line­backer Jatavis Brown, who has been start­ing in place of the in­jured Kyzir White (knee), missed his third straight day of prac­tice be­cause of a groin in­jury and is listed as doubt­ful for Sun­day’s game.

Start­ing tack­les Rus­sell Okung (groin) and Joe Barks­dale (knee) were lim­ited in prac­tice Fri­day and listed as ques­tion­able. Cen­ter Mike Pouncey (knee) was a full par­tic­i­pant and came off the in­jury re­port.

Sean M. Haffey Getty Im­ages

MIKE WIL­LIAMS, gain­ing yards af­ter a catch against the Raiders, this week­end will be go­ing against Cleve­land’s Den­zel Ward, whom he faced in col­lege.

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