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Getting up off the mat after beating Jacksonsville for the second time this season — barely — the Texans were given a boost by playoff news that could add an eighth team to the fray for this season:
I will be honest — I don’t understand the reasoning behind this. The way it was laid out in previous Schefter/other insider rumor posts led me to believe that they were worried about cancelled games creating a situation where a 9-6 team made it over a 9-7 team, which, well, just play the damn game in a Week 18! But the NFL has treated this virus like a nuisance at best, and so we will continue previewing games that shouldn’t matter in a Whose Playoffs Are They Anyway? sort of scenario.
The Browns are coming off a bye and have lost Odell Beckham Jr for the season, but they have successfully turned the corner from Freddie Kitchens and appear to have developed a real offensive identity in a way Bill O’Brien would kill to have done: running the ball well.
The last time the Browns and Texans played was in 2018 — Baker Mayfield was picked three times in his wildly effective rookie season and the Texans beat up on the Browns, 29-13. Unfortunately for us, that game has almost no impact on how we should feel about this game versus an entirely different coaching staff.
Cleveland is only regarded as about a 3-3.5 point favorite at home on Sunday, with the over/under a shockingly non-Texans-esque 45.5-46.5. Most of that is likely informed by high gusts of wind in the forecast. While snow has not ever mattered in a material way for projecting things like this, heavy wind does impact the passing game.
When the Texans have the ball
With David Johnson ruled out due to concussion, we finally get a full glimpse of Duke Johnson as an everydown runner for the first time in his Texans career. He did handle most of the workload in the win against the Jaguars, but was waylaid by his blockers for most of the game. Johnson faced eight-plus in the box on 37.5% of his carries and contributed minus-2 yards over expectation. To put that into a direct comparison: David Johnson is at minus-17 yards over expectation this season.
The other factor here is Senio Kelemete was ruled out with his own concussion, meaning it’s likely that Max Scharping will return to the lineup at guard. I do rate Scharping as a better run blocker than Kelemete. At least on runs where Scharping isn’t pulling, anyway. Week 8’s Texans game plan involved more screens than we’ve seen in sometime. I have a little optimism that maybe that kind of game plan can work if the Texans are forced into something like that by the weather. The Browns and Raiders played one game in similar weather this year and the long pass by the Raiders was 11 yards, if you’re wondering how that might play out.
The name of the Cleveland pass defense is turnovers — they have forced one to end 17.1% of defensive possessions against them, second-highest in the NFL. If you’re comparing them to teams the Texans have played this year, they remind me a bit of the Titans with more pass rush. Myles Garrett is terrifying and has racked up nine sacks in eight games. Sheldon Richardson can still bring the heat, and Olivier Vernon and Adrian Clayborn are both vets with some juice. Watson hasn’t turned the ball over since Week 5.
Denzel Ward is an awesome corner, but not one that travels often, and the Texans have enough depth in their receiver corps to be able to exploit that if they are actually throwing the ball on Sunday. Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson — remember him? — are the other corners. Johnson does know the Texans scheme and that helped the Bills strangle the Texans in the playoffs until Deshaun Watson bailed them out.
The Browns are solidly in the tier of teams that won’t blitz much — their 22.4% blitz rate ranks sixth-lowest in the NFL — and their overall pressure rate is pretty low at 19.0%. I think those are both factors that tend to tilt the game in Watson’s favor if the wind isn’t too blustery to deal with. The Texans tend to struggle against more aggressive teams. Garrett on Tytus Howard ought to tell us a lot about how Howard is faring — and if they put Garrett over Tunsil at any point, that’s a big win for the Texans.
Since firing Bill O’Brien, the Texans have become more 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends) heavy, using it on 26% of snaps since Week 5. They also showcased some I-Formation looks against the Jaguars with Pharaoh Brown as a pseudo-fullback. They average 5.2 yards per carry from 12-personnel and 3.3 from 11-personnel (one back, one tight end). The Browns have allowed 4.5 yards per carry against 12-personnel — it brings more of their young linebackers on to the field — but also have allowed only a 59.1 passer rating against 12. Houston’s passer rating in 12? 128.9. Something is going to have to give in that stat, one way or the other, that could break the game.
If the Texans are forced by the wind to become a one-dimensional team … it will not end well. This offense hasn’t run the ball well outside of short bursts in years. I do think the set up for them to run is as optimal as they have on the roster from a personnel perspective, but asking their run offense to win the game as currently constituted — poorly coached, poorly schemed, and against a solid run defense — is a big ask.
When the Browns have the ball
Buzzsaw, meet planks of wood. Houston’s run defense has improved slightly since Tyrell Adams was added to the lineup, but mostly only in obvious short-yardage situations. The Cleveland running game has been fantastic this season, with Wyatt Teller emerging as an obvious star on the offensive line and toting a ridiculous PFF grade as well as wreaking havoc on the film before being shut down by injury. He’s expected to return:
Cleveland’s offense is not locked into 11-personnel at all — they’ve run it just 44% of the time. In that regard, as DC Anthony Weaver mentioned in his presser, they’re kind of like the Vikings. That is where Kevin Stefanski came from, after all. The Browns have run for 6.1 yards per carry in 12-personnel, 5.7 in 13-personnel, and 3.9 with fullback Andy Janovich in the backfield for 22-personnel. Houston’s run defense has allowed 6.1 yards per carry against 12-personnel. The Texans aren’t equipped to hold this team to 100 yards rushing. They may not be equipped to hold it to 200 yards rushing. Nick Chubb’s status is up in the air, but if he plays, this is the best they’ve seen since Dalvin Cook.
With Jacob Martin still on the COVID list, I expect Jon Greenard’s snaps to be cut pretty heavily and for Whitney Mercilus to get at least 60% of the outside snaps, if not 70%. Mercilus has played like one of the worst run defenders in the NFL so far this season. Brennan Scarlett’s injury deprives the Texans of the guy they think is a primary run defender, Charles Omenihu is questionable. I’m sure the Texans would like to go back to ignoring Greenard completely based on how John Reid is being used, but they may just not have a choice based on the injuries and illnesses.
In their one game without Beckham so far, the Browns ran with Rashard Higgins as the No. 2 receiver and KhaDarel Hodge as the No. 3 over Donovan Peoples-Jones. Hodge has nine NFL catches, but I think Higgins is a solid possession receiver who could move some chains on the weak links of the Texans secondary. If Peoples-Jones get snaps, I think that speed could be hard for the Texans and their “veterans that are playing well” to deal with.
Baker Mayfield, for me, is a bust in the guise of franchise quarterback. I don’t think he’s equipped with any special attributes to climb the rankings. However, this offense has hidden him in the same role it hid Case Keenum in for the entirety of the 2017 season, when the Vikings made the NFC Championship game. Cleveland’s thrown for 586 passing yards off of 67 play-action dropbacks. Mayfield is more than capable of coughing it up — he’s got a bad throw % per SportsRadar of 20.6% — fourth-highest in the NFL. It’s hard to really gauge how much Beckham’s absence will hurt the passing game because their one game with that took place inside of a tornado, but Mayfield performed terribly in it.
At the same time — does it really matter who this Texans defense plays? Jake Luton threw for 300 on it. I’m sure Jarvis Landry will find some lanes and make some easy yardage in the role he was born to play in this offense as a high-volume extension of the running game. I’m sure that the Texans will lose at least one receiver on a leak concept. Bradley Roby’s return will help them look a little bit better, I’m positive of that, but beyond that … what kind of hope do they have here? They need Watt and Mercilus to turn back the clock to 2015 to get any sort of negative plays and both running backs and tight ends have shredded this defense when given the chance. The best way to describe this defense is to listen to their defensive coordinator:
“When we have 10 missed tackles or less, we tend to play pretty good defense” is an “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” of the 2020s.
Mired in disastrous reads and decisions by DeAndre Carter, the Texans have turned themselves into just another mediocre unit. Fairbairn hasn’t missed a kick in a few games, so that’s good! But other than that, there’s not a lot for this unit to hang their hat on besides Bryan Anger.
Cleveland’s kick and punt coverage is a disaster though, and the Browns did have a bad game from Austin Seibert, so I guess they’re somehow worse.
Impossible to tell you today how this game will play out without knowing the weather forecast. The Texans gain a big boost if they are allowed to throw downfield on this team. The Browns are better-equipped for a wind tunnel game between a great run offense returning one of its best linemen and a cover-you-eyes-bad Texans defense.
If it turns out to be a 30+ MPH wind day for the Texans to deal with, I’ll go Texans 17, Browns 24. But if the Texans are actually allowed to throw the football, I think this game goes way over the spread as Deshaun Watson’s arm forces the Browns out of their comfort zone only for the Browns to discover this defense is pretty trash. If that’s the case? Texans 29, Browns 30. The Texans will have to prove they can beat an actual NFL team again before I believe that they will, even one I think has some pretty obvious weak spots.
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