1. Browns D tightening up, even without turnovers
There wasn't much need for soul-searching or elaborate scheme changes as the Browns defense evaluated its performance from the first half of the season and looked ahead to the second.
Simply put, the defense just needed to get off the field more, and the solution was by no means complex.
"We just have to be better at it, really. That is pretty much it," DT Larry Ogunjobi said. "Just attacking our keys, playing to our strengths … being better on first and second down, I feel like that was the biggest thing. You put yourself in a good position first and second down, you are getting to third-and-long, then your percentages of getting off the field go up."
Far too often, the Browns have been on the wrong side of a lopsided difference of offensive plays. Some of that can be attributed to an efficient Browns offense, but more often than not it's been because of the team's inability to get stops on third downs.
In Week 7, the Browns ran 52 plays to 75 by Cincinnati, which went 6-for-9 on third downs and 1-for-1 on fourth down and never punted. The next week against the Raiders, the Browns possessed the ball only six times while the Raiders converted 8-of-14 third downs and 2-of-2 fourth downs while holding a time-of-possession advantage of 15 minutes. Though the defense allowed just 16 points, it didn't play winning football on a blustery day at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The week off was much needed simply from the rest standpoint, and it provided an opportunity for the group to look in the mirror and correct what wasn't working.
The first chance for redemption Sunday went much better than the previous weeks, as Cleveland's defense got seven third-down stops and allowed the run-dominant offense to control the clock, especially during the fourth quarter. As a result, the Texans were limited to seven points, and those didn't come until less than 5 minutes remained in the game. It marked the first two-game stretch since Weeks 10 and 11 of last year in which the Browns held their opponent below 17 points.
"The guys were playing fast and understood the game plan was not perfect," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I did think that there was a great level of effort out there, and holding those guys to seven points is a big deal."
Perhaps most encouraging — or discouraging, depending on how you look at it — is the Browns defense hasn't forced a turnover in either of these games.
Cleveland's defense, of course, would prefer to force turnovers — multiples of them, at that. It just doesn't want to live and die by them the way it did, at times, during the first half of the season. The Browns led the NFL for most of the first half of the season with 14 but still surrendered an average of 31.5 points through the first seven games.
Sunday provided a sustainable blueprint for how the Browns defense can play the kind of complementary football needed at this time of year.
"We are always going to be looking to take the ball away, and then there are moments where they do not present themselves or the offense does a great job," Stefanski said. "The ability to get off the field on third and fourth down is just so big … what you do on first and second down really matters in terms of where the third down distance is."
Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Houston Texans yesterday by the Browns photo team
2. The new normal
One thing has remained constant during a season filled with a seemingly never-ending supply of unexpected change: Browns players and coaches remaining unfazed by it.
This past week has thrown a number of curveballs at the Browns in the form of intensified protocols and multiple players producing positive COVID-19 tests. Cleveland was without Baker Mayfield at its first practice of the week leading up to Sunday's game and didn't know until the afternoon Friday whether it'd be able to hold a practice.
On Monday, the building was closed again, forcing the Browns to work remotely while analyzing the Texans game.
"It sucks, but it is just the nature of what we are in right now," Ogunjobi said. "We have been handling it since the start of training camp as far as wearing our masks, following the right procedures and everything. We are not really fazed by it. We just have to continue to go through the protocols.
"I know some guys are kind of frustrated about it, but it is just once again the nature of what we got going on. It is one of these things where it takes all of us. It is a shared responsibility. It takes all of us to get it done. So, we are just going take it one day at a time, continue to roll with the punches and do what we have to do."
During interviews Monday, both Ogunjobi and CB Denzel Ward said they're staying home more than they would during a typical football season. That hasn't changed much for Ogunjobi, a self-described "homebody," while Ward said the biggest difference for him was how little he was eating at restaurants.
Ogunjobi said he sympathizes with the players who live by themselves and spend an inordinate time with little social interaction. He just knows the team's situation isn't unique to the rest of the NFL.
"You have to be able to control the controllable, and right now we can control our contacts by being able to go out and all that kind of stuff," Ogunjobi said. "I feel like the risk is not worth the reward, if that makes sense. I feel like a lot of guys understand that right now, and you have to stay home, you have to just grind it out, you have to just continue to play so we can all play."
3. Browns aren't biting on playoff talk
Seven games remain, the AFC is competitive as ever and the Browns are right in the thick of what promises to be a dramatic race for playoff spots.
It's a fun discussion for everyone surrounding the team, which hasn't made the playoffs since 2002. It's just not one you'll hear entertained by Browns players and coaches, and that direction comes from the top.
Asked about the playoffs Monday, Stefanski smiled and began his answer saying "You probably know how I'm going to answer this."
"We do not get wrapped up in that," Stefanski said. "I know it is fun for the fans and I get all that, but for us, we kind of try and focus on the task at hand. Today was about learning from yesterday. You try and learn after a win as much as you learn after a loss, and then get ready to play Philly.
"For our fans, we like having meaningful football games, but for us, really the thing that matters most for us is the game that week."