1. When Browns lose turnover battle like they did Sunday, it’s hard to even keep final result close
Sure, the four turnovers Sunday, including three interceptions by rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, were uncharacteristic of what the Browns had done in their previous 11 games. But perhaps even more so were the zero forced by the defense, making Sunday’s turnover differential the widest Cleveland has experienced all year.
The Browns came into Sunday’s highly anticipated showdown with the Texans tied for first in the NFL with a +14 turnover differential. That total took a big hit Sunday, and it was because both sides of the ball didn’t do what they’ve typically done throughout the season.
“The four turnovers hurt us, and we didn’t get some takeaways,” coach Gregg Williams said. “We had the balls on the ground, but we’ve got to come up with some of those balls and we’ve got to come up with some things and field position things to help us.”
Winning the turnover battle, of course, hasn’t guaranteed anything for the Browns this season. Yes, they won it in all four of their victories, but they also had plenty of losses follow similar displays. Cleveland fell in overtime at Tampa in Week 7 despite forcing four turnovers to the Buccaneers’ one. In Week 1, the Browns forced a whopping six to Pittsburgh’s one and only had a tie to show for it.
It’s just been one of the team’s biggest strengths. And in big games against division-leading teams like the Texans, a team needs its strengths to shine.
The opposite happened, and the Browns suffered a 16-point loss on a day in which they trailed by multiple possessions for the better part of three quarters.
Mayfield’s three interceptions in the second quarter led to 13 Texans points, seven coming off a pick-6. Antonio Callaway’s fumble at the end of a 71-yard reception took at least six points off the board for Cleveland.
“When you turn the ball over that many times, it’s hard to win the game,” offensive lineman Joel Bitonio said. “We just have to take care of the ball better.”
The Browns defense went without a turnover for the first time all season and was stuck on the field for long stretches, especially in the first half, as the Texans moved the chains with a methodical attack that was low on risk. Houston finished with a 15:10 advantage in time of possession — more than a quarter’s worth.
As safety Damarious Randall described it, Texans second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson’s first instinct is to run, not force a throw to a covered receiver, when his initial reads don’t come open. So even when the Browns brought pressure — and they did, finishing with four sacks — Watson bought time by rolling out of the pocket or scrambled.
There just weren’t many balls up for grabs for a defense that not only had at least one turnover in the previous 11 games, but also had at least two in all but two of them.
“When you’re up 23-0 at the half, you really don’t have to force anything,” Randall said. “We were minus-four in turnovers today, and that will get you beat by (16 points).”
The Cleveland Browns play the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.
2. Browns quick to pick up Antonio Callaway after unfortunate series of events
Callaway had two 70+ yard touchdowns in a span of a couple of minutes in Sunday’s third quarter. Neither wound up counting, and the momentum Cleveland built coming out of the locker room was gone, too.
A 76-yard touchdown reception was wiped off the books because of a holding call on left tackle Greg Robinson. A couple of plays later, Callaway was streaking toward the end zone again after covering 71 yards of ground. With his eyes on the end zone, Callaway lost the ball after a bruising, well-placed hit by Texans safety Justin Reid.
“He had it tucked, but the guy made a great defensive play,” Mayfield said. “That’s not on him at all.”
Mayfield sprinted across the field after the play to lift up Callaway’s spirits. Mayfield patted him on the helmet, and the two rookies ran back to the sidelines together.
“It means everything,” Callaway said. “He’s a leader, leader of the offense.”
Veteran wide receiver Jarvis Landry did the same. He’s seen Callaway improve with each week -- he has seven catches for 146 yards in the past two games -- and knows more big plays will come his way.
“We came in here and tell him not to hang his head,” Landry said. “He’s putting great stuff on film. He’s making those types of plays. It was back to back on the same drive. Just continue to do that, continue to make plays. We don’t want the turnover but it happens. Guy made a great play.”
3. Browns suffer two big injuries on defense
Cleveland didn’t have any major injuries in its previous two games, but it got a double-punch to the gut in Sunday’s first half.
Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward exited with a concussion. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi followed with a biceps injury. It’s unclear whether either player will be available next week against the Panthers.
The loss of Ward was particularly tough to stomach going against a Houston receiving corps that featured All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins and Demaryius Thomas. The Browns kept them under reasonable control, but it forced the defense to adjust on the fly.
“He’s a big loss,” Randall said. “He’s obviously one of our top guys on the defense. Losing him definitely hurts because that changes the whole way a defensive coordinator calls the game. It showed a little bit in the second half, but we’ve got to keep pushing forward and fighting.”