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Texans-Browns Preview: SIX Things to Watch For

NOBODY BELIEVES IN US. It’s SIX things to watch for when the Texans play the Browns.

Houston Texans v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The soothsayers, tasseographers, and palmists have packed up their crystal balls, their coffee mugs, and have put their gloves on. Their time has come to an end; reality has murdered the need for their predictions. Entropy has detonated all those pristine and perfect ideals, and expectations for the future we are currently in.

It’s now time for the paleontologists, the archeologists, and the settlers, to bring out their brushes, their shovels, and their walking sticks, to uncover what has just transpired, and explore the dark parts of the map.

Week one has left us with more questions than answers. Does Arthur Smith need the Tennessee Titans and do the Tennessee Titans need Arthur Smith? Are the Ravens really set to be destroyed by mangled limbs? Is Zach Wilson the best rookie quarterback? Can it be possible regression is coming for Josh Allen? Wait a minute, wait a minute, are the Houston Texans not the worst team in the NFL?

Last year brought upon similar questions after Gardner Minshew went 19/20 to beat the Colts, the Browns lost by 32, Tom Brady threw a pick six and another interception thanks to the ghost of Jameis Winston, and the Patriots power read option run game was unstoppable.

For now we operate in the murky, the cloudy, the gray. Time will sort this thing out, but no one has time to wait. It’s up to the digging, the unearthing, and the exploring, to accurately depict the present, because by the time we know it, it will already be over.

HIT IT

1. THEY CAN’T REALLY ONLY JUST PLAY COVER TWO

When Lovie Smith was hired to be the Texans defensive coordinator it seemed completely ridiculous that in this place in time a NFL team would make the cover two their base defense. Sure, teams utilize this coverage as change up in two high shells, and teams like the Chiefs even play an inverted cover two. But cover two and Tampa two over and over again? There’s no way.

The Texans did exactly this last week. They played cover two for the majority of the game, and occasionally mixed it up with cover three. What’s even stranger is that it worked. Thanks to six dropped passes, ten penalties, and three interceptions, Houston was able to limit Jacksonville to 21 points.

A head coach who has watched a NFL game before would have had a better game plan, and a seasoned quarterback would have been more patient. Jacksonville started the game off trying to run screens and slants, routes that run right into the heart of this defense. Later on they were able to utilize better route concepts to attack the holes in Houston’s defense.

Vernon Hargeaves III (#26) allows DJ Chark to release inside towards his teammates. He drops deeper up the sideline, despite the flat, and is squeezing the corner route. Rather than scamper to the usual hole in the zone, Chark curls and sits in between a triangle of Texans defenders. It’s an easy 27 on 3rd and 17.

The problem for Lawrence was that he wanted it now. Rather than take what the defense gave him, he consistently looked for the bigger play, which resulted in two turnovers.

Hargreaves III game changing interception came from a Tampa Two coverage. Zach Cunningham took a deeper drop back to cover the intermediate middle. With a lead, Hargreaves III, ignored the flat, and sunk deeper and deeper up the sideline to take away the corner. The veteran quarterback, down by ten, looking to score before the end of the half dumps it into the flat, and trusts James Robinson to break a tackle on 2nd and 9. Instead he throws the corner, where the weak spot has been reinforced, and is picked off, putting Houston at Jacksonville’s seven yard line.

Throughout the game, Lawrence forced deeper and more complicated throws into barbs of coverage, rather than take the layups and slowly chip at the lead. It’s understandable from a rookie quarterback playing in his first game, and playing from behind, but it’s reasonable to expect more from quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield.

Houston’s cover three had its own problems too. The first touchdown pass of Trevor Lawrence’s career came against cover three. Chris Manhertz runs the seams, and neither Desmond King or Zach Cunningham carry it, leaving Justin Reid in an impossible place to make an impossible play.

Smith opted not to blitz either. They would show double ‘A’ gap pressure and then pounce back into...you guessed it...cover two.

The majority of their pass rush pressure they created was the result of stunts along their front four. Jacksonville, Houston, along with the majority of league, had problem picking up twisting and looping defensive linemen. Ross Blacklock had some pretty long arms and rips and was able to get wide around the guards occasionally—a beautiful sight from their second round pick who had more punches thrown than sacks last year. His long arm-rip combination around A.J. Cann forced Lawrence from the pocket, leading to a Justin Reid interception.

Jacob Martin made things more complicated at times, but they didn’t have anyone consistently win their reps to create pressure. This defense is based around getting pressure with the front four, keeping routes in front of you, and chasing and tackling to limit after the catch. For this coverage to act as a staple of a successful defense, Houston has to get more from their eight man deep pass rush.

It’s even more important this week too. Historically Mayfield has had issues sitting in the pocket and maneuvering through the pressure. He’ll scurry right at the first sight, instead climb calmly and deliver the checkdown. Semblances become a massacre. Since last year’s win against Baltimore, he’s been better in this regard, but the Browns still have problems on third down. They were 2 for 7 last week, and third down was their worst down by DVOA last season. Getting Cleveland into third and long, and putting the dough into the shotgun, is the typical trick to limit the Browns offense.

2. FAKE IT

Houston’s defense is a great matchup for Cleveland. Mayfield has consistently shown the ability to scan the field, use his eyes to manipulate the defense, and create seams in zone coverage. He’ll look the flat to open the slant, something that has to be covered with Kareem Hunt catching passes, and the Browns receivers are good at adjusting their routes to find holes in the zone. They aren’t Kansas City, but no one is.

The bigger problem for Houston is how well the Browns use play action. Last week Mayfield picked up 135 yards on 7 play action attempts. Against this defense, play action yanks the linebackers down to fit the run against Nick Chubb and Hunt, and opens throwing lanes behind them.

Last week out of 11 personnel, Lawrence hit Chark on a deep touchdown pass off play action. They used a return motion to check the coverage. The fake pulled the linebackers down to the line of scrimmage, removing the ability for either one to carry the seam. This left Reid (#20) in conflict. He could either cover the post, or the vertical route passing by the squatting Hargreaves III. It was an attempt at pulling off the unbelievable. Reid chased the post, then flipped his hips to cover the vertical route, in an attempt to cover two routes at once. He was close. Lawrence’s arm was too much and the ball was put past him.

Cleveland can do anything with play action. They’ll pull the guard and full back to sell counter, then hit the tight end leaking out into the flat.

Heavy three tight end formations are passing formations for the Browns.

They’ll use 22 personnel to get nine defenders in the box, pitting their wide receiver against a retaliating safety. Here, rookie Anthony Schwartz (#10), torches safety Juan Thornhill (#22) on a corner route against a scrambling cover four.

They’ll use different drop backs to get Mayfield on the move, and kick out the screens to fully open the windows. This roll left creates more space for Schwartz’s post route, leading to an enormous 3rd and 3 conversion early on against Kansas City.

Houston’s linebacker consisting of Zach Cunningham, Christian Kirksey, and Kamu Grugier-Hill, are going to be pushed to their limit this game. They’ll be dangled around by Kevin Stefanski’s invisible hand, culling them into the box, the ball pulled back, and whizzing above them. Kirksey lucked into a fortunate interception last week, and chased and tackled the screen game well too. They’ll need more from Cunningham and Gruiger-Hill in coverage to keep this play action game from blowing them out.

3. THE PULL OUT METHOD

Part of the reason why the Browns play action game works so well, is how their base run offense operates. The Browns love to pull their offensive linemen. They’ll run power run plays with three pullers, even getting wide receiver Jarvis Landry in the mix, and they’ll pull blockers to run outside zone as well. This, combined with their pulls in their play action game, makes their offense devastating.

The Chiefs are playing cover one. They drag two defenders to cap the fullback and the tight end, creating an opening on the left. Left tackle Chris Hubbard (#74), and the left guard Joel Bitonio (#75), block down on the defensive tackle, and climb up to the second level. The contain defensive end Joshua Kaindoh (#59) follows thinking it’s outside zone, leaving the pulling Wyatt Teller (#77) an easy block to make. He pins his back against the pile. The fullback Andy Janovich (#31) doesn’t even have anyone to block on this trot to the endzone. By pulling the fullback and the guard, they turn the weakside of the formation into its strength.

The Browns also run outside zone. Sniffing their own endzone they get 15 yards from 31 personnel. Harrison Bryant (#88) kicks out the edge defender, the rejuvenated David Njoku (#85) climbs to the second level, and Jack Conklin (#78) does the same after helping Teller get his hands on Chris Jones (#95). Hunt leaps over Drew Sorensen, but is wrangled down by Anthony Hitchens (#55).

Cleveland will run this same play by pulling blockers too. It’s outside zone left. Austin Hooper (#81) blocks down on the defensive end. The backside of the line runs a quick scoop to get to the second level. But then, something diabolical happens, the left tackle and center pull. This makes it easier to reach the edge defender, and makes it possible to block the safety. Rather than forcing the running back break the last line of defense, the Browns have an answer for it, if only Tretter could make his block on Sorensen (#49).

After defending only 14 running back carries and allowing 4.92 yards a carry last week, and so many new parts, we don’t really know what the Texans run defense is. They never had to consistently stop the run with a big lead early. This week is the ultimate stress test. Cleveland has one of the best, and most creative run games in the league, and last time they played, Chubb and Hunt combined for 38 carries and 230 yards. Run fits, hilarious. The front seven didn’t want none. It was an absolute ass kicking.

4. TYGOD

We thought we knew who Tyrod Taylor was. He was a conservative quarterback who was great at not taking sacks, and not turning the ball over. At the age of 32, he shouldn’t be an integral part of the run game. How the defense plays would dictate how Houston’s offense would operate, focusing on a ball control run game to limit how many plays he had to make.

Pandemonium. In the beginning TYGOD created the heavens and the earth. Taylor scorched the Jaguars for 291 passing yards, and 40 rushing yards, including a long run of 29 yards. He only took one sack, despite being pressured on 12 of his drop backs and taking 4 hits. Slippery, he was impossible for the Jaguars to drag into a tree. K’Lavon Chaisson needs to change his name to Chaseon after last week.

Taylor made the big plays he was previously too risk averse to make. He escaped from Chaisson to deliver an unthinkable deep pass to Brandin Cooks, who scampered across the field to leap over two defenders to turn tragedy into euphoria.

Houston failed to pick up the stunt. With an interior stampede set to devour him, he tossed a high arcing throw to Brandin Cooks, that went right above the defender’s outstretched arm. Cooks beat press coverage, something he typically struggles at, and with the cornerback chasing the entire way, he broke the vertical into a corner away from the middle of the field safety.

Against cover one, with the Jaguars slanting left and abolishing their rush lanes, he took off for 29 yards after making one defender miss.

Against a cover zero blitz, he Dirked off his backfoot, and hit Pharoah Brown on a post route.

Aside from the big plays, Houston’s down by down offense was successful too. The Texans used the pistol, and creatively fabricated stacked sets, to attack a disoriented Jaguars defense that oscillated between cover one and cover three. Their man coverage was consistently eaten up by these presnap formations, and by using Jordan Akins as a decoy to clog chasing defenders along the middle of the field.

Quick flat routes were especially successful.

Tyrod Taylor suddenly evolving into Deshaun Watson probably won’t be the norm this season. The Texans ability to generate easy throws for an efficient passing offense could though. The flat will be open this week too.

The Browns are a two high defense with John Johnson that now that mainly plays cover four and cover seven. With a cornerback trailing backwards to take a deep quarter part of the field, and only three under defenders covering the hooks, these flat throws will be open. Anthony Walker is on the injured reserve too after having a great game chasing and tackling the Chiefs screen game. They’ll need their linebackers Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Malcolm Smith to fill in, and stop where the Texans previously had success.

5. THIS IS WHAT YOU TRADE TWO FIRST ROUND PICKS AND A SECOND ROUND PICK FOR I GUESS

The best part of last year’s 10-7 ohhhhh nooo it’s windy I can’t throw the ball game was watching Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard go to battle against Myles Garrett. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate has arms like scythes, and he rains death in a sweeping motion upon quarterbacks, with long arms, pure edge rushes that bend the corner, swims, and spins. He does it all. Last year he had problems getting around the exoplanet that is Tytus Howard (#71), but was able to beat Tunsil (#78) a few times.

Garrett has new running mates this year. Former Texans number one overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney, has replaced Olivier Vernon, and this week he gets his second chance at revenge. Malik Jackson and the resuscitated former first round pick Malik McDowell replaced Larry Ogunjboi and Sheldon Richardson.

Last week Clowney finally made a tackle for a loss on a jet sweep, after missing this tackle a hundred times over his career, and was able to win a few times by going inside out against the offensive tackle. He wasn’t utilized on the interior much, making preseason speculation a possibility, instead of reality.

Garrett had his way with Orlando Brown. He was able to beat him off the snap, turn the corner, and sniff Patrick Mahomes time and time again. The one sack, three pressures, and two quarterback hits don’t do a good job representing his masterful performance.

Going against these two are Tunsil, and since Howard has moved to left guard, it will be Marcus Cannon and/or Charlie Heck on the right side. Heck was the starter until he came down with COVID-19, putting Cannon in the starting lineup last week. The Texans also used Geron Christian at right tackle to give him a breather.

The Texans pass protection made their individual one v. one blocks. Rarely were they beat by any pass rush moves. The issue was they couldn’t pick up stunts. They were split, their head was turned, and they gave up free rushers. Hopefully a week in the film room cleans up these mistakes that were a mainstay of the Mike Devlin era.

Last week, it really didn’t matter with Taylor slipping from sack attempts, and getting the ball away. This week is different. Clowney and Garrett live on an entirely different planet than Josh Allen and Chaisson. When Houston has the ball, Garrett and Clowney against Tunsil and whoever, is the premier matchup this game has to offer.

6. BROWN, THAT LOOKS LIKE ORANGE TO ME

So you do not live your life but an alien one. But who should live your life if you do not live it? It is not only stupid to exchange your own life for an alien one, but also a hypocritical game, because you can never really live the life of others, you can only pretend to do it, deceiving the other and yourself, since you can only live your life.