Whether it’s trash talk or friendly banter, you can bet the 2016 Fiesta Bowl — a national semifinal playoff game in which Clemson manhandled 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, at University of Phoenix Stadium 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 6-foot-4, 220-pound Williams, the seventh overall pick of the 2017 draft, remembers one specific first-quarter play in which he out-jumped 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 in the Ravens game.
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 23½ 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.”
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.
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 9 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.
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.
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna