HOUSTON — Deshaun Watson made his first start in 700 days Sunday in Houston and was far from perfect, but the Browns found the plays they needed from their defense and special teams to secure a 27-14 win over the Texans at NRG Stadium.
Here's three takeaways from a win that moved the Browns to 5-7 on the season:
1. Watson shows rust in debut
The offense showed glimpses of its potential with their new starting QB on Sunday, but most of the results suggest that there's plenty of work ahead for the Watson-led offense to grow into its best form.
Watson completed 12 of 22 pass attempts for 131 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. His biggest play of the day was a 27-yard completion to WR Donovan Peoples-Jones. Watson also carried the ball four times for 22 yards, not including his three kneel-downs to end the game.
A few of Watson's passes were off target and either fell short into the turf or were simply misplaced, but the Browns expected those hiccups to some degree after his two-year absence away from the NFL.
"I'd just say that I felt every single one of those 700 days," Watson said.
Watson was suspended the first 11 games this season due to violating the league's personal conduct policy but worked during that time to be mentally ready to pilot the offense and stay in shape. He'd been allowed to practice with the Browns since Nov. 14 but didn't begin taking full reps with the first team offense until this week with three practice days.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski said the progress should only go up for Watson after getting the first game out of the way.
"First game back so you've got to work through it," he said. "Got to get some game reps. Got to get this first one out of the way."
2. Defense shows up with timely takeaways
The Browns were able to pick Watson up with one of their best games of the season on the defensive side of the ball — they recorded a season-high four takeaways, three of which came from the defense and two of which were turned into touchdowns.
CB Denzel Ward and LB Tony Fields each stepped up with big games, and Fields was the indisputable MVP of the game with a forced fumble, pick-six and fumble recovery on a botched Texans punt return. Fields punched the ball out from Texans QB Kyle Allen when Houston was pinned at its own 1-yard line, and Ward scooped the ball up and had an easy walk-in for six points.
The play extended the Browns' lead to 14-5 in the third quarter.
"I didn't know anyone picked it up," Fields said. "I just hit the ball out and hoped for the best. Anytime the quarterback dives with the ball out, you've got to hit it."
Fields, a 2021 fifth-round pick who spent most of his rookie year and the beginning of this year on special teams, also caught a tipped pass from Allen and ran it in for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Browns a 24-8 lead. He delivered by far the best game of his career — the interception, touchdown, forced fumble and fumble recovery were all career-firsts, and the big performance could mean that he becomes a mainstay in the middle of the defense for the rest of the season.
The defense as a whole, however, deserves credit for finding three takeaways after it had gone the last three games without one. They intercepted Allen twice, including a pick from S John Johnson III on the first play from scrimmage.
Sure, the Texans offense has been one of the lowest-producing groups in the league this season and was tied for 30th in the league with 20 takeaways, but on a day where the offense struggled to generate much production, the Browns needed the defense to make as many big plays as possible.
"We needed some of those takeaways to really separate the score for us," DE Myles Garrett said.
3. DPJ showcases improvements on punt return in a big way
The biggest play of the day arguably didn't come on offense or defense, but rather from special teams.
Peoples-Jones was the catalyst of a 76-yard punt return touchdown in the second quarter, which was the first time the Browns broke into the end zone all day. The return looked tricky for Peoples-Jones, too, after he broke a few tackles and maintained his balance to weave through more Texans' tacklers.
The return highlighted the big improvements Peoples-Jones, a 2020 sixth-round pick, has shown as a punt returner the last two games. He returned five punts for 75 yards (15.0 average yards per return) last week against the Buccaneers and looked more confident and more quick than when he previously had punt return roles in his first and second seasons.
With his touchdown Sunday, he should undoubtedly be considered the Browns' punt return man of the future.
"He's been outstanding, which shouldn't surprise you with Donovan," Stefanski said. "He's been close on a few, and he's getting more sound. The team did a great job on that return. They gave him the seam, and then on this turf, he was moving there. He continues to help this team win."