The matchups were memorable, not for their seriousness but for the fun.
After the 2014 and 2016 seasons, cornerback Aqib Talib played against star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s annual exhibition that is heavy on camaraderie and light on real competition.
“That’s playing around,” Talib said this week. “Backyard football.”
The stakes will be higher Sunday night when Talib and the Rams play the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Rams are 2-0 and regarded as a contender to win the NFC and make a return trip to the Super Bowl. The Browns, after going 1-31 the previous two seasons, seemed to turn a corner last season when they finished 7-8-1. They are 1-1 under first-year coach Freddie Kitchens and appear on their way to respectability in the AFC, if not more.
Beckham, acquired from the New York Giants in an offseason trade, is part of a Browns offense led by quarterback Baker Mayfield – the first pick in the 2018 draft -- and that also features receiver Jarvis Landry. Running back Kareem Hunt, another potential star, will not play Sunday because he is serving an NFL-imposed eight-game suspension. Nick Chubb is the current starter.
Beckham, 26, caused a stir this season by wearing an expensive watch in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans, and an even pricier timepiece during warm-ups before a “Monday Night Football” victory over the New York Jets.
But he also showed once again that he is a game-breaker.
“There’s not many players in this league that can catch short, intermediate, down the field and can literally score on any single moment, any play,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “He’s an explosive play waiting to happen.”
Beckham’s talent was so intriguing to the Rams, after the 2017 season they expressed interest about acquiring him from the Giants, the team that selected him 12th overall in the 2014 draft. Instead, the Rams traded for Brandin Cooks, who teams with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp to give quarterback Jared Goff one of the NFL’s most productive receiver corps.
Beckham’s time with the Giants ended in March when the Browns gave up a first-round draft pick, a third-round pick and safety Jabrill Peppers for one of the NFL’s most dynamic players and personalities.
Beckham showed his big-play capability against the Jets.
He made a spectacular – but now routine for Beckham – one-handed catch along the sideline. He also caught a short pass and turned it into an 89-yard touchdown.
“You’re like, ‘Wow,’ ” McVay said.
“Eighty-nine yards to the house,” said Rams running back Todd Gurley, a friend of Beckham’s. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
The Rams have thus far proved adept at limiting big plays. In victories over the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, they gave up only two plays of 20 yards or more.
In Beckham, they are facing a receiver who is averaging 17.8 yards per catch.
“He can line up anywhere, run any route and has great hands,” Rams safety John Johnson said. “He can run the ball, he can throw it.
“He’s just one of those guys you got to be conscious of... If we eliminate him, we’ve got a good chance of winning.”
Much of the responsibility for neutralizing Beckham will fall on Talib and cornerback Marcus Peters.
They were effective, if largely untested, in the Rams’ 30-27 victory over the Panthers and 27-9 victory over the Saints.
With Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater playing most of last week’s game in place of injured Drew Brees, the Rams limited star receiver Mike Thomas to 89 yards for 10 catches.
“You always see a ball game you say, ‘Well they’re going after this one cornerback because the other cornerback can’t really play,’ ” Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “They haven’t gone after either of our corners very much because both of them can play.”
Asked about Beckham, Peters said, “I got nothing to say.” The Rams defense this season, he said, “handled business when we needed to be handling it.”
Neutralizing Beckham requires a collective effort, Talib said.
“You got to work together to guard that man,” he said.
Mayfield’s ability to make plays when a designed one breaks down creates an added challenge.
“He can create off-schedule as well as anybody,” McVay said.
That will put pressure on the Rams secondary.
Against a quarterback such as Brees, Talib said, defensive backs typically cover receivers for two-and-half to three seconds. With Mayfield, it could be five or six seconds.
“We got a clock in our head as DBs,” Talib said. “We know that clock is just a little bit longer this week.”
With Beckham on the field, the watch is always ticking.