1. Hold down the fort
Offensive guard Joel Bitonio called them the best the Browns have faced this year. Offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens called them the best in the league. So slowing down the Texans’ front seven will play a key role in any roadmap to a Browns victory.
Much of the offensive success the Browns have enjoyed recently is tied to their good play on the offensive line. Baker Mayfield hasn’t been sacked in two weeks, and Nick Chubb exploded through gaping holes against the Falcons and Bengals.
The J.J.-Watt-led Texans represent a steep step up in competition, however. Blocking Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus one-on-one is a big ask, and the Browns know they’ll have to assist their teammates in doing so.
For the offensive linemen, that means double-teaming on blocks. For the running backs and tight ends, it means staying in for protection more often and chipping. For Baker Mayfield, it means making quick decisions. For the receivers it means getting open faster so Mayfield can make those quick decisions.
Everyone plays a part.
“I think that we are going to try to do as much as we can to help each other out,” Bitonio said. “Hopefully, Baker continues to do a good job of getting the ball out of his hands. Hopefully, we can establish the run so that we do not have to be in third-and-long situations and can slow them down in that way.”
2. Cover the quarterback
It sounds odd to say about a quarterback, but to Gregg Williams, Deshaun Watson might as well be another receiver out there. That’s not a knock on Watson’s ability as a quarterback. Far from it, in fact. Williams is referring to Watson’s ability to scramble and how that athleticism requires a defender to account for the possibility that Watson might run on pass plays.
“It might be a pass play, but (the quarterback is) the one that is open,” Williams said.
Watson’s proven his ability as an NFL-caliber passer. But it’s his athleticism that makes him so frustrating to game plan against. The defense can stop every receiver from getting open and still give up a big play because Watson breaks free from the pass rush and runs for a first down.
Take it from a linebacker who’s experienced it: FDoing everything right and failing is a bad feeling.
“It is definitely demoralizing on the defense to see that stuff happen,” Joe Schobert said.
3. Contain Houston’s run game — with the offense
The Texans are the fourth-best rushing team in the NFL. The Browns are a bottom-five run defense. That’s not a great match for the Browns, but Williams mentioned that the Browns’ rushing defense numbers are misleading due to the overtime games they’ve played and the time they spent trailing early in the season. Both factor into a defense that’s been on the field for more snaps than most other teams.
But over the last two weeks, the Browns have held leads for long periods. They’ve compiled successful drives, resting their defense in the process. The results have been mixed. One game, the Browns held the Falcons to 79 yards, the other they yielded 129. But the Bengals only ran the ball 20 times (15 with their running backs) despite their 6.4 yard average because the Browns built such a big lead.
So even if the run defense is sloppy, the offense can help carry the load.
“When the offense is controlling the ball like that, that definitely takes a load off of us,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “It helps (defenders) with everything — running to the ball, that pop you have, everything, man.”
4. Make Watson pay for his risky play style.
Myles Garrett should be licking his chops.
The Texans’ offensive line has allowed 37 sacks this season. That’s with the ever-elusive Watson evading rushers and extending plays. Garrett called the Texans’ line “solid” but the numbers say it’s struggled. Football Outsiders ranks it as the second-worst pass protection unit in the NFL. And Watson is known to hold the ball longer than most quarterbacks.
“But those times you don’t get him,” Garrett said, “He’s throwing it to (Deandre Hopkins) for a touchdown.”
Watson will provide chances for the Browns to sack him. Whether or not they can convert those chances is the difference between a big play for either side. And during the better part of this season, the Browns haven’t converted those opportunities.
After recording 12 sacks through their first four games, the Browns have just 14 in the seven games since. That needs to change Sunday.