Aside from Steeler week, the most important game of the Cleveland Browns season is upon them. After a disappointing loss two weeks ago to Las Vegas when the team underperformed, played disjointed, and seemed unmotivated, the Browns need a victory against Houston. The Texans are record poor but talent strong. Deshaun Watson remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league despite fewer weapons at his disposal. J. J. Watt still wrecks opposing offenses. If Cleveland overlooks the 2-6 Texans on Sunday, they’ll get beat, dealing their playoff hopes a significant blow.
Who plays Sunday is murky. Baker Mayfield sits on the COVID list after having contact with a Browns employee who tested positive. Mayfield’s tests have been negative, but he must remain that way until at least Wednesday to return to the practice field. Regardless of the quarterback, the game plan should remain the same. Houston sports the worst rushing defense in the league (yes, even worse than Dallas) and Nick Chubb and Wyatt Teller returned to practice on Monday, in line to play this week. Expect to see Chubb and Kareem Hunt attack the Texans’ weakness. Bradley Roby has played a strong corner (12th according to PFF) and Houston generates a decent pass rush, sacking quarterbacks at a rate higher than that of the Browns. With Mayfield’s erratic play and strong winds and rain in the forecast for Cleveland on Sunday, the running game is their path to victory.
The Texans, meanwhile, have no desire to run the football. They average just 87 yards on the ground, 31st in the league. Their offense is Deshaun Watson, and he wants to push the ball downfield. Watson is second in the league in yards per attempt (8.8) and has two deep threats in Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller at his disposal. The Browns front four must pressure him. Watson gets sacked on 8.1% of drop backs, 28th in the league, because his offensive line is poor and he likes to throw it deep. If he’s completing moon shots, the Browns can lose.
Will the weather help Cleveland’s abominable secondary? Root for windy conditions, the only assist that can help the Browns defend the pass. November on the lake becomes untenable to teams without a sturdy running game. The Texans are good, but lack confidence or the ability to bury teams. The Browns need to prove they can win a game with stakes.
On the surface, a 2-6 team at home in November poses a minor threat. But the Texans played a divisional round playoff game in Kansas City last season. Their schedule was brutal, facing the Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Titans, and Packers in the first seven weeks of the season. Will they quit if punched early? The Browns must get an early lead, then take Houston’s heart by leaning on them with the power running game. If weather is a factor, it could frustrate Houston’s air heavy offense. In the past, on the cusp of becoming either a contender or an also ran, these are the games this franchise has booted. Sunday will prove whether Kevin Stefanski has changed the atmosphere in Cleveland.
The Whip Around
1.In Seattle, Pete Carroll lets Russ cook. But his defense gets roasted each week, and will keep the Seahawks out of the Super Bowl if they can’t improve before the playoffs. 30th in points allowed per game. 32nd in yards per game and passing yards per game. 23rd in sack rate. The secondary can’t guard a soul. Jamal Adams’ injuries have sidelined him, but he also struggles in coverage when he plays. They play four corners who qualify to be ranked by Pro Football Focus. Of 116 CBs, no Seahawk slots higher than 47th. Carlos Dunlap helped their pass rush on Sunday, vital for the secondary to have any shot. Seven sacks of Josh Allen, along with 10 more hits of Buffalo’s quarterbacks, suggest they can disrupt opposing passers. But Allen ripped them anyway, throwing for 415 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Legion of Boom, Seattle’s vaunted secondary during their Super Bowl years, is gone. If they can’t get better at defending the pass, so is Russell Wilson’s shot at another Super Bowl.
2. Can watching Aaron Rodgers throw beauties like this ever get old? And oh yeah, Davante Adams could be the most underrated receiver in the league.
3. 8-0 for the first time in their history, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the look. And while Ben Roethlisberger’s return and Chase Claypool’s superb rookie season garners the headlines, T.J. Watt and the Steeler defense have lifted the franchise to their best start in Steeler history. Watt’s 7 sacks and 12 tackles for loss tie him for fourth and second in the league. Watt has the quickest first move off the ball in the NFL. He drives around his blocker on the edge by being quick, getting low, and putting his right arm into his man, using power and leverage to force his way to the quarterback. If the Steelers continue to blitz their way through the league, the Watt family may add another Defensive Player of the Year award to their mantle.
4. Before Tampa got bludgeoned by New Orleans Sunday night, their defense, ranked 2nd in sacks and tied for 1st in the league in turnovers, threatened to give Tom Brady the weapon he needed for another title run. Tampa blitzes the second most of anyone in the league, knocks down QB’s 9.5% of drop backs, and has the third highest pressure percentage in the league. Those numbers are fierce, giving them a fallback in case Brady’s age becomes a factor late in the season. Only Pittsburgh makes QB’s more uncomfortable, but Drew Brees toyed with the Bucs pressure by throwing quick and working the screen game. Few opponents have Alvin Kamara and an uber accurate thrower, but Tampa’s future is pressure dependent. Keep it off your old quarterback and put it on the opposition’s.
5. Funny how a rebuild ramps into overdrive once the quarterback is in place. A year ago, the Miami Dolphins seemed destined for an arduous dismantling of the franchise. Now they’re in playoff contention. Brian Flores proved capable of motivating his young squad last year, winning 5 games when zero seemed possible. When your rookie quarterback goes on the road, completes 71% of his passes, throws 2 touchdowns and no picks, and beats a playoff contender, heads turn. Tua Tagovailoa didn’t let Kyler Murray’s outstanding play distract him Sunday, and it allowed him to engineer a fourth quarter comeback. Miami now owns an impressive head coach, a young, dynamic signal caller, and Houston’s 1st and 2nd round picks in the 2021 draft. Few franchises are in a better position.
6. San Francisco’s fall from the top of the NFC is injury centered, but proves again that relying on a dominant running game and defense is prickly. Shady quarterback play gets supported only so long. When your rushing attack falls from elite (153 yards per game last year), to above average (119 in 2020), you’re no longer a Super Bowl contender. The 49ers are the latest example of why it’s imperative to win it when you get there. A young roster burgeoning with talent last year, San Fran now has an injury plagued group, are saddled with a below average quarterback whom they’re paying 27 million per, and play in the toughest division in football against Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, and Jared Goff. Windows are tight in the NFL.
7. Injuries have mounted, riddling his early career, but when Dalvin Cook is on the field, he balls. He’s 13th all time in rushing yards per game played. Now healthy after missing week 6, Cook leads the league in rushing yards, touchdowns, and yards per game. His 6 yards per carry is third. With shoddy offensive play all around and a quarterback destined for the mediocre Hall of Fame, Cook’s season has carried the Vikings back into playoff contention. No running back has single-handedly made the playoffs since Adrian Peterson, also in Minnesota. But the Vikings don’t play defense, a prerequisite for running your way into a playoff berth. Their sixth worst in the league, force few turnovers, and are 30th in the league against the pass. Cook is outstanding, and could have an outside shot to win Offensive Player of the Year. But catch him before January.
8. Joe Flacco is Joe Flacco. He has a Super Bowl ring, however, and passes like this remind you of who he once was.
9. The long balls are rare, and the offense plodding, but Derek Carr’s efficiency is working. The Raiders are 5-3 and battling to make the playoffs in their first Las Vegas season. Carr lacks weapons in the passing game, but is completing 70% of his throws and has tossed only 2 picks. Are the Raiders a ground and pound, defense first outfit? Al Davis is barking from beyond for Jon Gruden to throw it deep, but they don’t have the horses. The Raiders lack talent, but they’re disciplined (fifth fewest penalties in the league) and cohesive. Wins over Kansas City and New Orleans already, a new, domesticated version of the Raiders exists. Do they have the talent to sneak into the playoffs? If so, Gruden’s experience makes them a danger to any contender.
10. Seattle plays a game of the week each Sunday, and two losses in their last three is concerning. They travel to LA on Sunday to face the Rams, 5-3 and just behind the Seahawks in the NFC West. Because of last year’s slide and Todd Gurley’s exit, most expected little from L.A. this season, yet a victory on Sunday gets them at least a share of first place in the division. Jared Goff feasts on bad secondaries, and none is worse than Seattle’s. The MVP at the midpoint, Russell Wilson’s teams are never out of games early, but Sean McVay will try a plodding screen game and run heavy attack to keep Wilson’s field time low. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey will be the difference. If his pressure up the middle can force Wilson to throw early, erasing his devastating deep ball game to D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and Ramsey can close off one side of the field, the Rams should win. A victory on Sunday puts them back into the Super Bowl conversation.
All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com