Nearing the last quarter of the NFL season, the next foe standing in the Texans’ way is the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have already accomplished a unique feat: they’ve won the same number of games as their last three seasons combined. Cleveland is on their first winning streak since 2014 and look to finally be a competent football team. The Texans will face a squad that has endured its fare share of turmoil this season but appear to be righting the ship under new guidance. The Texans enter the game riding high on an eight-game win streak after losing their first three games—a feat of their own that has never been accomplished. The hype and spotlight are beginning to shine on the Texans as the playoff picture begins to form with the Texans are squarely in the frame. With both teams uniquely optimistic about their future, the Browns pose several obstacles for the Texans to trip over in their pursuit of their ninth straight win of the 2018 season.
Browns’ Offense Improving Under Baker Mayfield
Cleveland’s offense took on a different hue when their coach, Hue Jackson, was let go from the team two weeks ago. In the last two games, quarterback Baker Mayfield has thrown for 474 yards, seven touchdowns, and zero interceptions on just 46 attempts. He has recorded his best two QBRs of 96.7 and 97.1 over the last two weeks, with both efforts resulting in a win. Although a two-game winning streak pales in comparison to the Texan’s current eight-game streak, it is a significant step for a franchise humiliated over the past several seasons. Freddie Kitchens has thrown out the kitchen sink to get this offense flowing properly.
Two name puns in one paragraph? Eat your heart out.
Surprisingly, Jarvis Landry has not been the benefactor of an uptick in offensive production. The Browns fourth round rookie receiver, Antonio Callaway, has emerged as the team’s primary receiver and deep threat. David Njoku is the Browns’ best interior pass catcher and is developing into a serious threat in their offense.
Everyone wants to know if the Browns are legitimate. Whether you are a Browns fan or not, nobody likes to see a franchise, particularly one with such a dedicated fanbase, lose at such an egregious level as the Browns have this past decade. This may not be the season where the Browns go from worst-to-first, but maybe they are more an embodiment of a 2014 Houston Astros team that spent three years as the worst team in the league to then have a below-average but better-than-before type of season. Maybe the offensive explosion by Cleveland is a short-lived convulsion of success before they revert back to their average, but it has been several weeks since the Texans’ defense has faced an offense that was in sync.
Myles Garrett Is A Problem
Elite pass rushers, as Texans fans can attest, can change an entire offense’s playbook and limit the formations the opposing offense can line up in. Garrett has recorded 10 sacks this season and he constantly creates pressure for Cleveland’s defense. The Texans’ offensive line is improving, but they have not exactly handled good pass rushers at an adequate level so far this season. Bradley Chubb, Von Miller, Trey Flowers, Jurrell Casey, and Darius Leonard, among others, have had field days against the Texans. Usually, the Texans struggle when opposing defenses have the ability to employ two pass rushers that each require additional blocking.
Larry Ogunjobi is Garrett’s running mate on the left side of the defensive line and has been the recipient of greater production this season as a significant portion of opposing teams’ attention has gone to Garrett. As Pro Football Focus illustrated, when Garrett gets going, it is hard to stop him.
Garrett accounts for 40% of the Browns’ sacks and a significant portion of their quarterback hits. Depending on the health of Houston’s offensive line, Garrett could be the most pivotal player in Sunday’s game.
An Emotional Drain Before A Short Week
With the recent passing of Texans’ founder and CEO Bob McNair, the entire Texans family came together to honor, respect, and win for the man who brought professional football back to Houston. A loss such as McNair’s can empower a team to play for a cause greater than itself and go further than originally expected. This may be the case for the Texans in the long run, but the emotional energy it took to muster together a win such as the one the Texans had on Monday night over the Titans can certainly take a toll on a player’s ability to bounce back just days after playing a hard-fought game.
Fortunately, the Texans have two factors going in their favor. First, this team is healthier than it has been all season, and may I dare say over the last two seasons. The Texans will get Dylan Cole back this week to add to their depth at linebacker. Second, the Texans are playing at home and don’t have to waste a day traveling to Cleveland. Having three straight games in Houston is a major plus this late in the season, though it may not be enough to completely rejuvenate all players physically and mentally before Sunday.
Browns Spread The Football Around
If the Browns kept Josh Gordon, this section could be entirely different. Without an elite receiver, the Browns are void of a primary target. As the Patriots have shown, not having a go-to option is not all that bad as teams truly have to play the entire field when facing them. Essentially, Mayfield is not handicapped in his reads by forcing throws to a single stud receiver.
Additionally, defenses cannot double team a single Browns receiver; Cleveland has several capable pass catchers who are all equally likely to be targeted on any given play. In the past three games, a total of six different running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers have caught touchdown passes from Mayfield. RB Duke Johnson, WR Callaway, and TE Njoku all are tied for the team lead with three receiving touchdowns. Next Gen Stats helps us break down Mayfield’s willingness to spread the ball all over the field.
Shading protection to the right side of the field is the obvious defensive countermeasure to Mayfield’s throwing tendencies, but he is scanning the entire field for open receivers. Though he favors the right side, as almost all right-handed quarterbacks do, he is not limited in his throwing downfield and to the left. The Texans will have to work to cover the entire length of the field against Cleveland.
Browns’ Turnover Differential
Currently the Browns sit atop the league in terms of turnover differential, with 14 more takeaways than giveaways. They have caused 27 turnovers this season; in the four games they have won, they’ve forced nine turnovers while only giving up two themselves. The sign of an improving team is the discipline to not turn the ball over combined with aggressiveness to cause opponents to turn it over. Ball security will surely be something the Texans will stress in their preparation for Sunday’s game. That said, the Texans have rarely given lesser opponents the opportunity to beat them with excessive turnovers.
If this game turns into a shootout, Deshaun Watson is more likely to air it out and take more risks with his throws. As Bill O’Brien opens up his offense, so too does he open up opportunities for turnovers. If the Texans can stick to the game plan that has gotten them here—low scoring, possession-based complementary football—the turnover differential should be rather minimal.
Anyone who watched the Big 12 and Oklahoma last year saw what a Mayfield-led offense can do to an opposing defense. Though the Texans’ defense is in another galaxy compared to those that Mayfield faced in the Big 12, the Texans would prefer to see him as little as possible on Sunday afternoon. That means limiting costly turnovers.