The Browns were fresh off a 21 point division win over Cincinnati, a mini-bye and playing at home. The Texans were starting a new quarterback who hadn't taken a full game of snaps in four years. Arian Foster was ruled out earlier in the weekend although throughout the week many surmised he wouldn't play.
These are the games the Texans can't win, won't win many said.
Yet…here we are after a Texans 23-7 sound defeat of the AFC North division leading Cleveland Browns. How? Well...
-- Ryan Mallett led the offense like a maestro.
-- Alfred Blue ran the ball 36 times for 156 yards.
-- The defense hit nearly anything that moved.
-- Special teams provided solid field position throughout the game.
-- Randy Bullock knocked home key 40 yard field goals, missing only from 52.
When Bill O'Brien was named the Texans head coach, this is the exact way I imagined this team winning games…well with Kareem Jackson and Arian Foster in uniform, of course. Even without two of the team's most valuable assets, the Texans dominated from play one through the final kneel down.
Even if people didn't see it coming.
Speaking of seeing things, here are my observations from this win, from my view on the sidelines, of course.
- QB Ryan Mallett didn't become a Houston Texan until the first week of the season, but you'd be hard pressed to convince anyone of that after watching him handle each and every aspect of this offense. He put guys in the right position. He was in complete and total control. I felt like when there was a question at all with protection, snap count, alignment or whatever, Mallett handled it and made the right move, call and decision often during the game. He wasn't perfect and the interception to Joe Haden was a tough lesson learned. But, this wasn't the case of a young guy just managing a game. He didn't just get the keys to the Maserati, he drove that sucker out to 59 and opened a can of left lane whoop a…well you know.
- But it was more than just scheme command. There was a simple moment during the game that most people missed and it seemed nondescript. However, I saw it and it assured me that the Texans offense was in solid hands. TE Garrett Graham shifted to the outside at the same time that Jonathan Grimes moved to Mallett's right side. If the ball had been snapped at that moment, the Texans easily could've been called for a two men in motion penalty. But, Mallett stopped his cadence for a count, made sure each guy was set for a count and then continued on. That's football IQ and it was evident today.
- JJ Watt as a split end on a fade route into the Dawg Pound to start the day's scoring? Are you kidding me? Great ball. Tremendous catch. And, not to mention if you had Watt as the first ever recipient of a Mallett touchdown throw, cash that ticket. And, that's maybe one or two of you in this world. Perhaps JJ's parents would've thought it could happen but c'mon…
- At LSU, Alfred Blue had 71 carries as a senior. He had more than half that number in this one outing over the Browns. 36 carries?!? I asked Bill O'Brien after the game and he non-chalantly noted that he thought he might get 25 or 30, but never 36. Who even gets 25 to 30 carries in an NFL game any more? Either way, it appeared that it took a little while for Blue to really burst with the rock even though he put up solid numbers in the first half. But, when it clicked for him in the second and third quarters, this offense took off.
- Tempo and pace are hugely important in Bill O'Brien's world and the offense played with both throughout the game. And, Mallett was key in getting everyone on the same page throughout the game. I liken it to a pitcher who doesn't throw a ton of strikeouts and works very quickly. Former White Sox star pitcher Mark Buerhle was the king of working fast and his defense loved playing defense behind him. Just the sense that I got on the sideline was that the offense was all on the same page…outside of the errant snap on 3rd and one earlier in the first half.
- It didn't come back to haunt them but two JJ Watt 15-yard penalties on SAFE punt were killers, especially the second one. I was standing about five yards from Watt and Coach O'Brien just following the second one and it was as if Watt knew he needed to get chewed out and OB didn't really want to do it but he was steaming. Watt does so much for this team as it is, but that second one really saved Cleveland's bacon as it covered the rest of the yardage in a short time for the Browns only touchdown. A wise man once said that you don't win games with flashy highlight plays, but with discipline when no one's looking. Or when everyone's looking in JJ's case. Look, it's a win and no one is going to feel worse about what happened than JJ. Most importantly, it was a good lesson in "do your job" in a 16 point win.
- That all said, defensive end Watt was unreal again, not to be confused with wide receiver Watt. He notched a stat in just about every column on the stat sheet, which just shows his complete dominance each and every Sunday. One moment during the third quarter, G John Greco held Watt badly on a zone run but no penalty was called. Watt got off the ground with some words for Greco, who bowed his head in silence as he knew he got away with one. The Browns OL just stood silently waiting for the next play. Watt continued to let Greco know that he needed one of his buddies to help him on the next play.
- Brian Cushing played Sunday without a brace on his knee for the first time all season. It was the most explosive I've seen him on the field in quite some time. He was designated to come off the field in dime situations but he fought that each and every time. In fact, he was angry when dime would come in the game because he went off the field. When he was on the field, he made a number of key plays. He knocked the ball loose from Isiah Crowell's hands deep in Texans territory on perhaps the most important defensive play of the game. We'll see what the film says as the Browns did run the ball well at times, but THAT Brian Cushing was the one we're used to watching.
- There was a moment when this team had a "here we go again" moment in the second quarter. Mallett threw his one and only interception of the day on one heck of a pick by Joe Haden. But, the defense came out and stuffed the Browns offense and forced a fourth down punt. Flag, the 15 yard roughing the punter flag gave the Browns another shot, but the defense thwarted that threat with a three and out to get off the field. Two enormous mistakes - an interception that took possible points off the board (oh and on that play CJ Fiedorowicz ran right past me on the Texans sideline four yards behind Donte Whitner wide open) and the 15 yarder that gave the Browns the ball back in plus territory. Yet, no harm on either because the defense "bowed its neck", as we say in Texas. Situations just like that have felled this team for a while, but not today (and hopefully not into the future).
Check out these snapshots from the Texans Week 11 matchup with the Browns.
- After Mallett's interception, I looked out into the defensive huddle and saw them all gathered around Watt and Cushing just prior to the Browns' offense breaking the huddle. It was clear the 11 guys on the field knew it was a key moment in the game, a sudden change moment, and they needed to respond. They all put there hands in and "broke it down"…then proceeded to shut down the Browns prior to the first, unfortunate 15 yard roughing call. I noticed the defense doing this a few other times in the huddle and it's something that gets an old coach like me juiced up.
- The offensive line did a whale of a job hammering on the Browns, but one aspect that won't get mentioned much was the job the interior guys did getting a hat up to the second level consistently. I don't know how many times I saw Ben Jones, Chris Myers and Brandon Brooks with a direct shot, and great block, on Browns' linebackers. The OL doesn't love attention but if there was ever a game to give a unit game ball, it was this one.
- Having played in cold weather many times before, it can be dreadful. It feels like you're going to break in half if you get hit or hit someone else. The ball is a brick and one thing I worried most about this week was the fact that Ryan Mallett throws 98 mph fastballs. Trying to catch one of those in the cold isn't for the meek of heart. But, the Texans receivers did a solid job doing so. On one play early in the game, Mallett hit Andre Johnson on a speed out and the ball got to Andre so fast that it shocked him and went through his hands. Luckily, his helmet slowed the ball enough for him to latch on and make the catch. The ball arrives in a hurry when it comes out of that man's hands and Dre found that out early.
- Fourth and four late in the game, how about the throw from Mallett to Dre for the first down? Johnson was getting dragged down by Joe Haden and it should've been pass interference. But, Mallett put the ball in a spot where only Dre could get it and the GOAT came down with it. A few plays later, Bullock knocked home a field goal for the 16 point lead.
- I had one snowball thrown at me by a Browns fan. One. That's all?!? So disappointed, Dawg Pound. And, you missed me too.
- I couldn't help but think of Brett Keisel's crazy, freaky interception v. the Texans on Monday Night Football with Mike Mohamed's interception late in the game. Browns WR Miles Austin should've made the catch but it was behind him a bit. When he juggled it, Austin then kicked it up in the air and Mohamed was right on the spot to make the catch.
- Speaking of Mohamed and the defense, Romeo Crennel truly mixed up the looks for Cleveland QB Brian Hoyer and it paid off in some physical hits on the Browns signal caller. The hit Cushing put on Hoyer? Whoa. Hit him right in the arm pit as he was following through on a throw down the field. Seeing Cush land square on him with full momentum…it was amazing that Hoyer got up and completed the next few passes.
- Jadeveon Clowney didn't register a sack or a highlight play but it was clear he was more comfortable in the scheme today than I can remember. He was moved around during the play call, although he lined up at ROLB or LOLB each snap he was on the field. Talked to him after the game and he said he felt "way better" than he did after the Tennessee game. It was good for him to see a left tackle like Joe Thomas because he won't face a better left tackle this season.
- Browns WR Taylor Gabriel and Andrew Hawkins have my utmost respect. I didn't give those two "mighty mites" much credit heading into the game but both were excellent and got open throughout the day. WR Josh Gordon can return alongside those two and dominate the Colts later in the year. Yeah, I said it.
- Akeem Dent continues to make an impact at inside linebacker in base personnel. Keep in mind, he was traded for TJ Yates. And, Blue was traded, in essence, for former QB Matt Schaub. Think about that the next time you see both on the field. Dent and Blue traded for two quarterbacks that didn't have any future value to the Texans.