As the Texans come off a convincing 37-21 week one win against Jacksonville, they face a far sterner test on the banks of Lake Erie. On paper, the talent deficit is stark but there are many parallels between the two teams, who are now at very different stages of the NFL life-cycle.
It won’t just be the former Texans no.1 overall pick who will be on the field against their former team. As Houston will have Terrance Mitchell, Eric Murray, Pharaoh Brown, Christian Kirksey, Tavierre Thomas & Tyrod Taylor as former Browns suiting-up in Liberty white.
An unlikely result may be borne out of the motivation to prove their previous club wrong but the balance appears to be heavily weighted against the Texans, in terms of talent. Where JD Clowney is health-wise after a year in the injury wilderness & missing training camp, is a question but he still provides a dominating edge presence.
Clowney, was just one of the additions to this re-tooled Browns Defense. The Cleveland front with the elite Myles Garrett, added to the revival of Malik McDowell, Anthony Walker, John Johnson & Greg Newsome, have built a spine that already held significant positional depth and quality. Whilst both Denziel Ward & Malik Jackson are bonafide, impactful talent, that round off an upper end-tier defensive unit.
Tyrod Taylor will be the headline, in a game the Texans will want to keep close & continue to rely on their simple formula that served them well last week. To avoid this ferocious front, the ball will need to arrive on a sharp rhythm. The Browns weak spot can be the intermediate areas, with Walker facing hamstring troubles & heading to IR this week.
So the Tight End may be targeted early & often, Pharaoh may need to set the passing game free. Watch for Auclair to get his first reception as well as Brevin Jordan to be activated. Jordan Atkins remains a question of fit for this offense but could play a role in a game where passes to the boundary will be hard fought.
The Houston run game will be the fundamental in allowing this game to remain a spectacle. Perhaps a more balance distribution than 26 carries from Mark Ingram will be sought. But the offensive line will have the onus on themselves to find a new level this week. Both Sharping and Howard must assert themselves in the A&B gaps. A watching brief, will be what the team choose to do at Right Tackle, if Charlie Heck returns. Throwing him out there in pass sets may be the undoing of multiple drives, as there will be no hiding places against the Browns front.
The Defensive Run Fits
The strength of Kevin Stefanski’s offense lie within the zone-run game. A back-field duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, has fewer teams boasting that level of cutting ability through the lines. The linebackers, particularly Zack Cunningham at the WILL position, should be vital in stopping the run, as the Browns attacks will often cut across the back-side of the play.
The linebackers will be tested against the run & in pass coverage, when accounting for the duo of Njoku & Hooper. This game will be an acid test of the unit, who will be without Kevin Pierre-Louis who’s been placed on IR. Putting a stop to the run will be paramount, although few units across the league may have the ability. The game hinges on it the & the ability of the Texans front seven to influence this game.
The much lauded Bill Callahan coached offensive line appears to have health pitted against them, as all three tackles are on the Browns injury report. This may open the door for the Texans to pressure Baker Mayfield who has shown he can be flustered.
The composition of the Browns play-action pass offense poses an intriguing battle against the zonal pass coverage. Lovie Smith will need to disguise his coverages and ensure those wide open seems & those gaping buckets in the second and third level are blurred more than they were in week one.
Lessons To Be Learned
Most iterations of the Browns in recent memory have been struggling teams, not so dissimilar to the expectations for the current Texans. Houston are in-part looking to future years but are perhaps not quite as deep into the depths of despair that Cleveland once found themselves.
But there are parallels in coming back from the brink that the Texans brass can learn form. Houston, similarly may be required to undergo a regime change, after years of adding talent to re-establish as a perennial play-off calibre team.
Perhaps the biggest question for Cleveland: do they have a true franchise passer? Another test awaits Sunday against a Texans team, who many counted out but will have plenty of surprises left this season. The conditions in Ohio can always change in a hurry but instead of a weather delay, a more recent history revision for Houston may be one similar to last years match up: a hard-fought contest, ending in a 4th quarter loss.
TEXANS @ BROWNS, 12PM CST; CBS; FirstEnergy Stadium