DeMeco Ryans wanted his defense to attack.
That was one of the focuses for the Houston Texans as they entered their AFC Wild Card Round showdown against the Cleveland Browns – a team that had defeated them 36-22 just a few weeks ago – on Saturday inside a sold out NRG Stadium.
The first-year coach wanted them to attack the ball.
Well, the defensive unit soundly answered the call of their head coach.
On Saturday, the Texans became the first team since the Seattle Seahawks in the 2008 season to produce two pick-sixes in a playoff game as Steven Nelson and Christian Harris took interceptions back for touchdowns in a dominating 45-14 victory.
"That was super crucial man," Nelson said. "You know how hard it is to get takeaways, not only just takeaways but two touchdowns back-to-back. I guess that kind of stunts the offense. That was two big plays for our team."
The fact that the Texans had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a single game was already a wild stat on its own.
But how about this – they did it on back-to-back defensive series.
"Never seen back-to-back pick-sixes like that," Ryans said. "We needed our defense to step up. We know Joe [Flacco] had a big day against us a couple of weeks ago. We knew it was a challenge in the passing game. For [Nelson] to make the pick that he made and also [Harris], those are big time plays."
With 6:05 left in the third quarter, Cleveland Browns quarterback Joe Flacco dropped back to pass on 1st-and-10 from the Houston 34. As he looked to buy time, the pocket collapsed and he was hit by defensive end Derek Barnett.
The hit as Flacco released the ball sent it flailing into the air. When it came down, it did so into the hands of Nelson. He picked it at the 18-yard-line and started his return.
With a convoy of teammates ahead of him, Nelson took the interception all the way back for the 82-yard pick six, which sent a sold out NRG Stadium into a frenzy. It expanded the Houston lead to 31-14 over the Browns late in the third quarter.
It is the first playoff interception of Nelson's career.
"When you see the defense scoring, that gives juice to everybody," Devin Singletary said. "The sidelines, the coaches, the fans. That was big. That gave us a lot of juice."
The Texans defense wasn't done yet.
With the Browns facing a 4th-and-2 at their own 33 on the very next drive, Harris stepped in front of a Flacco pass intended for tight end Harrison Bryant and picked it off and took it to the house from 36 yards out for the score.
It is the second interception of his career but his first-career that he returned for a touchdown.
Harris finished with the interception for a touchdown, eight tackles, two tackles for loss, one pass deflection and one quarterback hit.
"Christian has been locked in all week," Ryans said. "It's a special moment for me seeing Christian and seeing his growth week after week and to see him make that play."
Harris became the first player in the playoffs to record a sack and an interception returned for a touchdown since J.J. Watt did it in 2011 for the Texans.
The second-year linebacker out of Alabama's interception returned for a touchdown and made it 38-14 Houston with 4:06 left in the third quarter.
"Trust me, that's a feeling that a defense loves to have," Jonathan Greenard said. "When a defense can go in there and produce their own touchdowns it makes the offense's job that much easier."
Will Anderson Jr. added: "So much energy. It was fun. That's what playoff football is about right there. That's what football is about to me. Having fun with your brothers, going out there and making plays. Everybody celebrating, no matter if it is in the endzone, on the field, on the sidelines. Just keeping the energy up."
The Texans defense in the second half forced the Browns into two pick sixes and then closed out the game with a trio of turnover on downs.
"When we needed it most, our defense had their best performance of the year," Ryans said. "In the biggest game of the year, they stepped up and had an outstanding performance and were the reason we won this game."