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Texans-Browns Preview: Five Things To Watch

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Here’s five things to watch for when the Texans play the Browns.

Houston Texans v Cleveland Browns
Shared history between these two franchises.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

For a summer of my life, I worked for a minor league baseball team in Northern Kentucky, barely below where Kentucky turns into Ohio. I lived in an apartment above the clubhouse with another guy. He was from Cleveland. Most of our conversations involved sports. We talked about that time Phil Dawson looked in my roommate’s eyes and said, “No way” while signing autographs after a Browns’ practice, Lebron going to Miami, whether the Texas Rangers were going to end up like the 1990s Indians, D’Qwell Jackson’s Pro Bowl candidacy, and comparative Steelers-Colts hatred.

Earlier this week, I texted him. I wished him luck with the Indians in the ALDS. We talked about the Browns and whether or not it hurts to see Deshaun Watson being good because Cleveland has their first two draft picks.

Haha they’ll end up trading both picks for future piks anyways. The Browns have not only managed to make me hate the NFL, but Sunday as well. F’ them.

Watson has been awesome so far.

After 18 years of having to watch horrible football and ruining Sundays because they played so bad. It’s very taxing.

It’s so sad. The Browns haven’t had a winning season since 2007. They went 10-6 back then. A record that always ends in a playoff berth that didn’t that year. The Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002. They’ve had ten different coaches since the team moved back to Cleveland in 1999. This season, they are already 0-5. They’ve done everything they should do to rebuild a football team. It was thought they would at least be competitive this year. They haven’t been, aside from a Week One loss to Pittsburgh.

I don’t know how he or anyone else who roots roots roots for that team does it and stays with it after all of this. Sports are such a weird thing. When you grow up with a team, they become etched in your DNA. They are part of your routine and a buoy to stick to in an ocean of time. It just becomes something you do. It all makes sense while you’re in it. But when you read things like the paragraph above, it gives a glimpse out of the cave and makes you realize just how insane it all is to spend your brain’s energy on Robert Griffin III’s return to greatness, to skip church and sit there every Sunday, all to watch someone else attempt to do great things and desperate to feel good things from it. It’s fun when it works, and I guess once you do something for so long and so often, there’s nothing else you can do. But man, when it’s put certain ways, it sounds like the absolute worst way to spend your finite time on this cage we call Earth.

HIT IT.

1.) Do They Bite?

This year, like the year before and probably the next year or two after that, doesn’t really matter for the Browns. They are rebuilding the way the math says to. Be bad. Trade down in the NFL Draft to get as many shots at the wheel as possible since it’s all a crapshoot anyways. Skip out on free agency until the window to compete opens up. Then win football games once all the puppies become big slobbery dogs.

The entire point of the 2017 season for the Browns is to see if the puppies bite. To see what they have in the 36 players they have taken in the draft the last three seasons. Players like Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, DeShone Kizer, Danny Shelton, David Njoku, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Rashard Higgins.

So far, it’s been pretty underwhelming. Garrett finally played his first game last week. Peppers has been a dud on punt returns and has been chewed up in coverage. Kizer was benched for Kevin Hogan. Shelton runs after players more than he stops them at the line of scrimmage. Njoku and Ogbah look like the real deal. Other than that, it’s been pretty much meh.

Progression isn’t linear. Learning and improvement aren’t things that just keep ticking up little by little. There are valleys and peaks that create a serpentine path to self-discovery and ability. It’s not that the Browns drafted the wrong players. It’s that the Browns’ young players have been underwhelming. The team has been awful. One day it may all be great and perfect, but for now it’s just been a continuation of the same bummer that has never ended.

2.) Another One

DeShone Kizer was benched after the first half of last week’s loss to the Jets. He should have been benched. In that first half, Kizer went 8-17 for 87 yards and threw one interception. Hogan started the second half in the same offense, behind the same offensive line, against the exact same defense, and went 16-19 for 194 yards, throwing two touchdowns and one interception.

Over the course of his first five starts, Kizer has been the worst quarterback in the NFL. He is 81-159 (50.9%) for only 851 yards (25th) despite throwing the 14th most passes in the NFL. He has thrown three touchdowns and nine interceptions (1st), averaging 5.4 Y/A (31st), 3.2 adjusted yards an attempt (32nd), and 10.5 yards a completion (25th). He has -449 DYAR (32nd), a DVOA of -52.2% (32nd) which is only better than Jay Cutler, and a QBR of 18.4 (also 32nd). DeShone Kizer has been an absolute calamity.

Part of the problem is the offensive situation hasn’t been as good as it was thought to be back in August. The offensive line is fine, but it isn’t great. Shon Coleman has been a disaster at right tackle. The Browns can’t run the ball in his direction or run the ball very much in general because they are always behind. They’ve run only two plays on offense with a lead. They are 27th in pressure rate. Corey Coleman broke his hand. Kenny Britt has given up on the field. There’s a lack of talent on the outside.

The rest of the problem is Kizer himself. He has been overreacting to pressure and creating sacks that never should have happened. He is still inaccurate, which leads to turnovers. He consistently misses the open receiver, choosing instead to throw to one blanketed in coverage. Rather than find the checkdown, he’ll hold onto the ball for forever. It sucks because the talent is there in glimpses. The arm strength. The downfield touch to make OMG throws. The elusiveness and vision as a runner. Kizer’s career isn’t over. Being benched and seeing the game from the sideline should help slow the game down and give him a different perspective.

In his place is Kevin Hogan, who has been pretty good! There is arm strength, decision making, and intelligence here. He also made one of my favorite throws this season, an opposite direction throw to Njoku that split two Ravens’ defenders.

Beautiful.

The Browns are 31st in passing offense DVOA and 15th in run offense DVOA. With Hogan, the Browns are a better team. They may be like the 25th best passing offense, which could score some points at times against bad defenses as Hogan gets the ball to Njoku and finds Isaiah Crowell or Duke Johnson on checkdowns, where they are great at breaking tackles and picking up yards after the catch. It’s so funny to say this, but the Texans are going to be playing a better Browns offense than other teams have seen.

3.) I Miss You So Much

The Texans lost J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus back to back on the same series las week. One to a broken part of the leg where it connects to the knee. The other to a torn pectoral. Two injuries that can’t be put back together with scotch tape and heat to singe flesh. Two injuries that need extensive time to heal and recover from.

In their place is a lot of underwhelming talent. Brennan Scarlett will play for Mercilus. Christian Covington, Brandon Dunn, and Joel Heath are the incumbents to fill in for Watt. Houston signed Kendall Langford and Lamarr Houston earlier this week as veteran pick and pull parts, but neither player was even good before they were injured last time. Hopefully Houston moves Jadeveon Clowney to defensive end and deals with the other outside linebacker spot from there. Clowney was incredible at that position last year. As a defensive end, he’s closer to the ball and can have a greater influence on the run game. He’d also have a shorter path to the quarterback.

There are two really big problems that will stem from losing both Watt and Mercilus. The first is Houston had trouble getting a pass rush with those two guys already. They have 11 sacks and are 19th in adjusted sack rate, but are 28th in pressure rate at 25.8%. The Texans just lost their two best pass rushers. Watt was first on the team in pass pressures with 13, Mercilus was second with 4.5, and Clowney third with 3.5. Defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel is going to have to learn how to manufacture a pass rush like Romeo Crennel did last year. They are going to need use Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham effectively through blitzes, loops, and zero dogs to create an interior pass rush. They are going to need someone on this roster to step up.

The second is that Houston’s defense depends on its front seven. They are thin in the secondary. Kareem Jackson has been bad when he isn’t dive bombing into ball carriers. Johnathan Joseph has been fine. Kevin Johnson is still hurt. The other defensive backs haven’t been good. They have used two different starting strong safeties. Andre Hal has balled, but still can’t tackle. It’s a medicore unit. It isn’t a unit good enough to make up for the losses of Watt and Mercilus.

Currently, the Texans are 28th in points allowed. They are 9th in defensive DVOA because of their two skull-shattering performances against Cincinnati and Tennessee. Without Mercilus and WAtt, I don’t think Houston’s defense is going to be good. They don’t have suitable replacements right now, and their secondary isn’t great enough as it needs to be to make up for it. Putting the training wheels on against the Browns is a good place to start. For now, it looks like it has to be the Texans’ offense that’ll make up for the losses of Watt and Mercilus.

4.) Trench Stuff

Hey! Myles Garrett is here. He had a sack on the first play of his career and picked up another one later on. That’s great. We need fun things. Garrett becoming a great pass rusher in Cleveland is a fun thing that we all need. In addition to him, the Browns have young rushers in Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib, and Nate Orchard, all of whom have been pretty good.

Pass rush isn’t what the Browns’ defense specializes in. They are a good run stopping team. On the inside, they have Danny Shelton and Jamie Collins. They are allowing 2.9 yards a carry, which is second in the league, and it partly has to do with being down and stopping the run in easier than expected end game situations. They are third in run defense DVOA.

It’s a fun and young group, a group that has been the best part of the Browns so far this season. Houston will again trot out that same offensive line of Chris Clark, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Nick Martin, Jeff Allen, and Breno Giaocomini, a group that has been acceptable since the switch was made from Tom Savage to Deshaun Watson at quarterback. This is a good time to bring up that quarterbacks have more of an effect on pass pressure than the offensive line does. Against the Jaguars, Savage was sacked six times in a half. When he came in during garbage time against the Titans, he was sacked immediately. Watson has the power to make up for bad pass protection. Savage gets devoured alive.

Houston should be able to keep things relatively clean for Watson in this game. They should score a lot of points. In the process, it will be fun to watch the kids try to chase down Watson and steal his little wooden horse before he can hide it in the furnace.

5.) The Little Rocket Man

Because of the injuries to Watt and Mercilus, this season is all about Deshaun Watson now. He’s going to have to keep leading the offense to 31 point games. The offense is going to have to make up for the defense. Staying spectacular is what Deshaun Watson has to do.

Last week against Kansas City, he was off playing against a great defense. He made a few WTF throws that were lucky to not have been picked off. There were also some accuracy issues. The offense placed him in a bunch of longer third downs that he couldn’t pick up in that first half. In the second half, things flipped. The change was that he started pushing the ball down field again. When Watson throws the ball downfield, this offense zips. It pushes the safeties back. It gives him space to scramble. It gives the running backs room to run. It gives the wide receivers one on one coverage on shorter routes. When he doesn’t push the ball down the field, first halves like the one against Kansas City will happen.

Before Watson has to play another great defense in Seattle, he gets another Fisher Price one in Cleveland. Watson has shredded bad defenses, putting 33 on the Pats and 56 on the Titans. The Browns are 31st in pass defense DVOA, slightly ahead of New England. Other than Jason McCourty, the Browns’ secondary is bad. This is a game where Watson Will Fuller V, and DeAndre Hopkins should all have a lot of fun making touchdown passes and smiling.

This is an important game, just in the fact that it’s a break in the clouds when Houston needed one, and it allows Houston to get a chance to play a different brand of football they are going to need to utilize to win games before they again have to play the better teams in the league.