March 4, 2024

It’s a Browns playoff game, that’s why I’m watching. This Saturday Cleveland travels to NRG Stadium in Houston, at 4:30 pm EST for round one of the NFL playoffs. Houston is ranked twelfth in total offense averaging 342 yards, 246 yards passing, 97 yards rushing and 22.2 points a game. They’re ranked fourteenth in total defense allowing 331 yards, 234 yards passing, 97 yards rushing and 20.8 yards a game. Cleveland is ranked sixteenth in total offense averaging 336 yards, 217 yards passing, 119 yards rushing and 23.3 points a game. They’re ranked first in total defense allowing 270 yards, 165 yards passing, 106 yards rushing and 21.3 points per game. What am I watching?

Browns Offense Vs. Texans Defense. Houston’s run defense is very good (6th), their scoring defense is good (11th), but their passing defense is below average (23rd). They blitz 29% of the time but have the fourth-best pressure rate in the league.

Defensive ends Will Anderson and Jonathan Greenard combined for nineteen sacks. Their linebackers (Christian Harris and Blake Cashman) are good against the run and the pass. In the secondary, the Texans play zone 81% of the time with two very good cornerbacks, Derek Stingley and Steven Nelson. With both the Texans’ best pass rushers returning from injury, the Browns offense will have to keep quarterback Joe Flacco clean with creative blocking schemes. In the last meeting, the Browns could not run the ball against Houston, 54 yards rushing, but did have a great day passing, 364 yards. I expect more of the same. Flacco has been fantastic at play action and this will continue. Houston will probably have safety help covering wide receiver Amari Cooper, which will open up opportunities for Elijah Moore, David Njoku and David Bell. The Texans do give up a lot of big passing plays. Prior to Flacco, the Browns’ explosive completion rate (+20 yards) was tied for 27th in the NFL, after Flacco, their explosive completion rate is first in the NFL.

Browns Defense Vs. Texans Offense. Houston’s offense runs through rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud. He’s 9-6 as a starter. The Texans play Stroud under center 38% of the time, fifth most in the league. His primary targets are wide receiver Nico Collins and tight end Dalton Schultz. Their primary running back is Devin Singletary, and they also use a fullback, Andrew Beck, 27.3% of the time. Houston’s offensive line, besides left tackle Laremy Tunsil, is not very good. Left guard Juice Scruggs has given up seven sacks in four games. In the Christmas Eve game, defensive end Za’Darius Smith had his best game of the year against right tackle Charlie Heck. Stroud has been sacked 38 times, which is an average of two a game. I expect Houston to roll Stroud out to the right to keep him away from defensive end Myles Garrett, so Smith, defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will have to contain.

Also in the Christmas Eve game, the interior of the Browns defensive line had a great day pressuring the Texans quarterbacks. Pressure can make a difference with Stroud. In a clean pocket, he has twenty touchdowns, completes 69% of his passes and averages 9.2 YPA. When pressured he has three touchdowns, completes 52% of his passes and averages 6.0 YPA. The Browns have the number two pressure rate in the league. Stroud has also struggled against the best passing defenses, Baltimore, New Orleans, Carolina and the New York Jets. Prior to his injury against the Jets, he was 10 for 23 with 91 yards. Keep the Texans out of the red zone, the Browns have the worst red zone and goal-line defense in the league.

On offense, the Browns need to continue to use the passing game to move the ball and set up the run game. If Cleveland can run for 80 or more yards, the play action will exploit the Houston defense. On defense, the Browns must continue to turn pressure into quarterback hits and sacks. And on special teams, tackle and contain to prevent long returns and use punts to win the field position battle.

Image via SI

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