The bye week could not have come at a better time for the ailing Cleveland Browns, who will get some major reinforcements back following the week off.
Sitting at 5-3 and very much in the AFC playoff picture, the Browns could get an immediate boost from the potential returns of RB Nick Chubb and G Wyatt Teller and expected return of TE Austin Hooper. The offense will have to be at its best Sunday in what is expected to be a shootout with the visiting Houston Texans and their star quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson is red hot of late, throwing for more than 300 yards per game with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games. Improving the defense, especially on third downs, was a major focus of the Browns over their bye week, and they will get a very tough test right out of the gate Sunday. After an 0-4 start, the Texans have won two of their last four games and are looking for their first two-game winning streak of the year. The Browns have not lost consecutive games all season and will look to continue that trend by beating the Texans and getting to 6-3 on the season.
How do the Browns get this very important win? Let's take a look at three keys to victory in this week's Winning Mix.
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Houston Texans
1. Contain Deshaun Watson and the Texans' aerial assault
This is not going to be easy, but it will be very important for the Browns to put up some real resistance to what has been one of the top passing offensives in the NFL. Watson is having a career year in 2020. He is posting personal bests in completion percentage (68.3), yards per attempt (8.8) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (17 to 5). Watson is currently on pace to throw for 4,752 yards with 34 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. He ranks second in the NFL in yards per attempt, is tied for fourth with 32 pass plays of 20-plus yards and has thrown for multiple touchdowns in six straight games.
In this week's Matchup to Watch, I profiled the red hot Will Fuller of the Texans, but he is not the only pass catcher balling of late. Brandin Cooks is on fire over the last four weeks as well, amassing 27 receptions for 372 yards and three touchdowns, the most recent of which went for 57 yards against the Jaguars in Week 9. Watson has the two speedsters on the outside and reliable veteran Randall Cobb (393 yards and two touchdowns) works out of the slot. When he receives time in the pocket, Watson is flat out deadly. From a clean pocket, Watson is completing 75 percent of his passes while averaging 9.4 yards per attempt. He has also thrown 12 touchdowns with only two interceptions and boasts a quarterback rating of 120 from a clean pocket.
This is a week where the Browns can literally sell out to stop the pass. The Texans have the fewest rushing yards in the NFL through Week 9 with just 701 in eight games. They are averaging only 3.9 yards per carry as a team and are last in the league in both runs of 20-plus yards (one) and 40-plus yards (zero). Look for defensive coordinator Joe Woods to try to blitz Watson to disrupt his rhythm and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. After all, Watson has been sacked three times per game on average this year and his numbers all fall when blitzed.
2. Get off of the field on 3rd down (and 4th down)
Addressing the Browns' defensive struggles on the money downs was a top priority of head coach Kevin Stefanski and Woods during the team's week off at the midway point of the season. The Browns have allowed 61 combined conversions on third and fourth downs this season, the third-highest total in the league. They have to get off of the field organically because it will be difficult to count on 14 more turnovers in the second half of the season.
Getting off the field will also help time of possession for the Browns, something that really got away from them in two of the last three games. In the losses to Pittsburgh and Las Vegas, the Browns were out-possessed by more than 23 minutes combined. You cannot impose your will as a run-oriented offense if you don't get a chance to get on the field.
3. Dominate on the ground
We have been focusing on the defense so far, but as the saying goes, sometimes the best defense is a great offense. In the opening, we discussed the potential returns of three key members on the Browns offense. They are not just critical to the offense in general, but they are also huge components of a run game that was ranked first in the NFL the last time they all shared the field together.
Against the 32nd-ranked run defense of the Texans, the stage is set for the Browns to dominate this game on the ground and bully Houston into submission. The Texans are allowing a league-high 159 yards rushing per game on 5.1 yards per carry. To running backs specifically, the Texans have given up 144 yards and 1.25 touchdowns per game on the ground while allowing a ridiculous 5.4 yards per carry. With wind and rain expected, this is the perfect setup for the Browns to do to Houston what the Raiders did to them in Week 8: Control the game on the ground, completely tip the time of possession in your favor and build an insurmountable lead.
Chubb, who has missed the past four games, is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, still leads the NFL in the chunk run stats and, if he's cleared to play, should have a chance to add to his totals Sunday. The Texans have allowed nine runs of 20-plus this year, second-most in the NFL and a league-high three runs of 40-plus yards. When you look at the two wide zone teams to face the Texans this year, the Titans and Vikings, it offers a great path to victory for the Browns. The Titans' and Vikings' running backs combined for 412 yards and five touchdowns rushing on an absurd 6.6 yards per carry in their victories over Houston. The table is set for a vintage Browns rushing performance, and that will lead the Browns to a glorious 6-3 record if they can beat Houston.