It's been a couple of years since the Texans faced the Browns. Two years ago, the Browns were an up and coming team with this gunslinging rookie quarterback leading the way. But, in that 2018 matchup, said quarterback Baker Mayfield was the tale of two halves. In the first half, he threw three interceptions, including Zach Cunningham's first pick six of his football playing career. In the second half, though, Mayfield lit the Texans up with 300+ yards passing (351 to be exact).
Looking back, that game has seemingly been a microcosm of Mayfield's career - equal parts up and then down. When he's on, he's as tough to stop as any quarterback in the league. But, the Texans caught him in a down moment in that first half and took advantage of his rookie-ness, so to speak. Second half? Total opposite. He's now in year three and some of those same roller coaster rides are happening from game to game. Case in point, the last two games for Mayfield featured 297 yards passing and five touchdowns (v. Bengals) and 122 yards passing and no touchdowns (v. Raiders).
Now, he was placed on the COVID-19 list but only in a contact tracing situation. Furthermore, because the Browns were on a bye week, he figures to not miss any time and is looking to ride the up escalator against the Texans defense. The thing that helps Mayfield enormously is the dominant run game head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry built. Using the zone running game (Stefanski) behind a rebuilt offensive line (Berry), the Browns challenge defenses to stop the run, before anything else. Yet, this offense has as many quality pass catchers throughout the roster as we've seen any team possess in 2020.
Defensively, defensive end Myles Garrett is having the best year of his career - nine sacks, 13 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. There are some around the league that think he's in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. Cornerback Denzel Ward is a huge problem as well. On the first series against the Bengals, he knocked away a pass deep downfield, made a tackle for a loss on a screen and leapt five feet in the air to tip a pass into the waiting arms of a teammate for an interception. Defensively, it's not a complete group, but it does have elite talent at two key spots.
With no further ado, let's get to Know Week Ten Foe - the Cleveland Browns.
2020 Schedule (5-3)
L, @ Baltimore Ravens 38-6
W, Cincinnati Bengals 35-30
W, Washington Football Team 34-20
W, @ Dallas Cowboys 49-38
W, Indianapolis Colts 32-23
L, @ Pittsburgh Steelers 38-7
W, @ Cincinnati Bengals 37-34
L, Las Vegas Raiders 16-6
Browns OFFENSE (in 2020 regular season)
Rushing Yards Per game - 150.0 ypg (5th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 196.8 ypg (29th)
Total offense per game - 346.8 ypg (24th)
Turnovers lost - 10 (7 INT, 3 Fumbles lost)
Expected Browns starting offense for Week Five
QB - Baker Mayfield
RB - Kareem Hunt/Nick Chubb (practicing this week, but not officially back - I'm thinking he will be)
WR - Jarvis Landry
WR - RASHARD HIGGINS/TE - Harrison Bryant
TE - David Njoku
TE - AUSTIN HOOPER
LT -JEDRICK WILLS JR**
LG - Joel Bitonio
C - J.C. Tretter
RG - Wyatt Teller
RT - JACK CONKLIN
Other Key Offensive pieces
WR - Donovan Peoples-Jones
OL - Chris Hubbard
Bold - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2020
Keys to winning v. the Browns Offense
- Disrupt Baker in the Well - the Browns do a great job of moving Baker around with bootlegs and scheduled movement, but they also have plenty of dropback/play action in their scheme. As much as possible, the Texans must encapsulate him within the well and make him throw surrounded by white jerseys.
- You go that way, I'll go this way - When playing a team that runs as much zone game as the Browns, the Vikings, etc...do, defenses sometimes use their second level defenders in a fall back position. Knowing that if the defensive front works HARD to the front side of a run, the back will typically work behind that block, cutting the run up where the center started the play. Linebackers can work, in some sense, away from the lineman and fit gaps behind the run so the back cuts back into them and not into open space. The linebackers fit into a fall back position, so to speak, to "catch" the back on the cutback.
- The Bag of Tricks - the Browns aren't scared to run, as Marc Vandermeer would say, some loop-de-loop, flippety flips. Now, it's not a trick, I suppose, when they run them as much as they do. But, I've seen jet sweeps, jet sweeps with an option pitch, double pass, reverse pass and the double handoff pitch (think what the Texans ran against New England last year). The defense needs to let their key reads tell them what to do and not get caught up in the smoke and mirrors.
- Jarvis is one thing, the tight ends are the other - Sure, Jarvis Landry gets all of the headlines at receiver now that Odell Beckham Jr. is lost for the season. However, the tight ends are the real problem creators for an opposing defense. If defenses play zone, this group is excellent in finding open areas to settle into and make catches. If defenses play man-to-man, it's difficult to find enough of the right cover people for all of the tight ends. Former Pro Bowler Austin Hooper, former first round selection David Njoku and 2020 rookie phenom Harrison Bryant can all be on the field together, honestly, and put a TON of pressure on the cover guys for the Texans.
- No busts in the secondary - the Browns scheme can often take advantage of mistakes in the secondary. I feel like I'm watching the Texans offense from 2009-2010 with this crew and, similarly, the Texans put teams in a bind that weren't disciplined with key reads or passing off receivers in zone-match, etc...As such, this Texans defense can't give up cheap plays because of a player's misalignment or players reading the wrong key or having bad eye discipline (that's a new buzzword that past couple of years). Either way, don't give them anything cheap; make them work for damn near everything this offense is going to get.
Browns DEFENSE (in 2020 regular season)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 106.8 ypg (11th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 264.6 ypg (24th)
Total offense Allowed per game - 371.4 ypg (20th)
Turnovers generated - 14 (7 INT, 7 Fumble recoveries - Browns are +4 in TO margin)
Expected Browns starting defense for Week Ten
DE - Myles Garrett
DT - Larry Ogunjobi
DT - Sheldon Richardson
DE - Olivier Vernon
WLB - Mack Wilson/Malcolm Smith
MLB - B.J GOODSON
CB - Denzel Ward
S - RONNIE HARRISON JR.
S - ANDREW SENDEJO
Nickel - KEVIN JOHNSON
CB - Terrance Mitchell
Other Key Defensive pieces
DE - Porter Gustin
S - Karl Joseph
DT - Jordan Elliott
LB - Sione Takitaki
DE - Adrian Clayborn
Bold - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New starter in 2020
Keys to winning v. the Browns Defense
- Not scared of depth - Here's what I mean...the Cleveland Browns like to bring blitzers from depth. In just a little over a quarter against the Bengals, the Browns brought nickel Kevin Johnson three different times. They coupled that with an edge player dropping, so each time it was only four or five rushing, but the look - opposite edge dropping combined with nickel coming from depth on the other side - is one the Browns defense appears to be VERY comfortable utilizing.
- Garrett is a HUGE concern (quietly, though, 54 is really good too) - There's little question that the Texans starting tackles are going to be in for a long afternoon facing explosive edge rusher Myles Garrett. That's not breaking news, but what many fail to recognize is that Olivier Vernon on the other side can win 1-on-1 matchups repeatedly as well. He doesn't get the attention that Garrett does and his numbers aren't extraordinary this season, but he did finally get on the sack board against Las Vegas with two sacks in their 16-6 loss.
- Get the ball out fast - the one key I've seen for quarterbacks that had success against the Browns was getting the ball out on time. The Browns struggled, especially against Cincinnati, in the back end to cover when the ball was delivered on time. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow consistently took profit all over the field and he got richer and richer as he got the ball out on time. Deshaun Watson can get BUSY if he gets the ball to his weapons all over the field with the same philosophy...on time.
- There will be seams, FIND them - What I mean is that the Cleveland front has some explosive dudes that can get up the field at all times. That also opens up some gaps in the run game and the Texans running backs must exploit the defense when they don't keep run gap integrity. Furthermore...
- ...the middle can be moved - I watched the Bengals push the interior of the Browns offensive line back off the ball, yards at a time, on a number of different plays. The Bengals did not slay the Browns' run defense at all, eschewing it for a truly successful passing game, but the interior (G-C-G trio) got some push at key times on first down when they did run the ball inside. The Texans must find a way to move dudes up front with their own G-C-G trio as well.