Game 10 Preview: Houston

Prelude: The Browns’ 2014 season has been segmented into distinct phases:

  • In weeks 1-5, they played four games against opponents who reached the playoffs in 2013.
  • In games 6-9, they played three games against the weakest teams in the NFL.
  • Games 10-12 come against teams trying to rebuild themselves– much in the way the Browns are.
  • Games 13-16 come against four teams who reached the playoffs in 2013.

In an earlier post, I speculated that the Tampa Bay game might be the last win of the season. The Browns could win all three of these “Redemption Bowls” or get swept. Most likely there will be some split result.

The Opponent: The Houston Texans, who joined the NFL three seasons after the Browns, are an example of what patience and careful planning can’t accomplish.Unlike the Browns– who were awarded the franchise 72 hours before opening day of 1999 (OK, it was September 1998) and were being run by the league for part of the preparation– the Texans received their franchise in October of 1999 for a 2002 start.

Houston has had only 3 coaches in 13 seasons, only three quarterback… and only three winning seasons.

  • In their expansion season of 2002, it was Dom Capers and David Carr.
  • In 2006, Gary Kubiak took over– a year later he acquired Matt Schaub.

This season it’s former Patroits offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who has used retread Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Houston has made only two playoff trips. The “half-full” glass is that they won a game both times. The “half-empty”: both times it was the Wild Card Game and both times it was against the Cincinnati Bengals, with Andy Dalton playing QB:

  • In the 31-10 loss in the 2011 season, Dalton went 27-43 for 257 yards and 3 picks (a 51.4 rating).
  • In the 19-13 loss, Dalton went  14-30 for 127 yards and a pick (44.7).

Present since the second season has been WR Andre Johnson, who might well be the best receiver in the business. It’s been hard to be sure due to the Texans’ underperformance. He has led the league in receptions twice and yards twice. He has seven thousand-yard seasons, and five seasons of 100 catches.

Johnson has the awful luck to sign extensions every time the team appears to be getting better– In 2007 (after their first 8-8 year), in 2010 (their first winning season). He;s 33 and would like to leave, but he’s trapped until 2016,

Cleveland fans should be able to sympathize with the guy,

The problem isn’t that the Texans lack talent. They’ve had 17 different players make the Pro Bowl. Eight have made it twice; RB Arian Foster three times and Johnson seven times. But they had two problems:

  • They could rarely assemble a critical mass of players having good years– if one star was playing well, another wasn’t (or was hurt).
  • The defense has usually been awful.
  • They haven’t been well-coached.

Kubuak is mainly to blame for that. Capers was fired for not improving the team fast enough. After a 4-12 inaugural season, he went 5-11, then 7-9 and then 2-14.

Kubiak goes 6-10 in 2006 and the Texans decided they had a genius. To way of thinking, it’s just water returning to its level. They team went:

  • 7-9 in 2004.
  • 2-14 in 2005.
  • 6-10 in 2006, under Kubiak.

Is he a genius for winning four more games, or was 2005 a fluke that would have corrected itself with just about any coach?

Kubiak went 8-8 in 2007, and Houston was sure it had a winner… even though he’d he’d only managed to improve the team one win over 2004 in three years.

Then he went 8-8 again in 2008. Then everything came together– and they went 9-7 in 2009. They gave him another year in 2010… and he went 6-10.

In 2011 and 2012, they won some games…but they fell apart in 2013.

A better illustration of the issues: In 2012, seven of the 11 offensive starters— Schaub, Foster, Johnson, both guards (Chris Myers, Duane Brown), T Wade Smith, and TE Owen Daniels– made the Pro Bowl.

The guys in bold are still there, and playing decently, at minimum

But the 2012 team only finished 8th in points and 7th in yards. And that was typical for the offense. From 2009-12, then finished 10th, 8th, 10th and 8th in points. (it fell apart in 2013).

Of course that was an improvement over the defense, which has never been higher than 15th until Wade Phillips showed up and taught the players his scheme. DE J.J. Watt is one of the best (if not the best) ends in the NFL; LB Brian Cushing is still a fine player and CB Johnathan Joseph can cover.

The 2014 season:  O’Brien’s modus operandi has been very comparable to Mike Pettine’s:

  1. Put in an offensive and defensive system that will let the team play more consistent. O’Brien in running the offense, using the spread formation he ran at Penn State.
  2. Schaub, who missed 22 games in 7 seasons and had erratic years, was replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose strengths are comparable to Brian Hoyer’s, even if he isn’t as good.
  3. To run his defense, he chose Romeo Crennel, who is trying to strike a balance between  the amount of gambling Phillips did and his own conservative approach.

The approach has been moderately successful. The Texans are averaging 22.9 points scored (16th in the NFL) and allowing 21.9 (11th). If Fitzpatrick (117 TDs, 101 INTs lifetime) were taking better care of the ball, the team might be doing better. He’s thrown 11 TDs and 8 INTs.

The big plus is that Foster (who played only 8 games a year ago) has been healthy all year He’s been over 1,200 yards– and in double digits in rushing TDs– three times. He’s already played as many games as he did last year.

WR DeAndre Hopkins (the #1 pick in 2013) was 52-802-4 last year. He’s already got more TDs (4) and will surpass the other totals unless he blows out a knee (42 catches, 684 yards). Johnson seems to be morphing into more of a possession receiver.

The defense leads the NFL in takeaways with 21 (10 interceptions, 11 fumbles). They do it with pressure and strip-sacks. Watt has 8.5 sacks, Whitney Mercilus (their #1 pick in 2012), 4.5 sacks. The defense might be even better if it could get DE-LB Javdeveon Clowney the #1 pick in the entire 2014 draft on the field. He’s missed all but two games.

Last week someone said “How can you possibly say a a 4-5 team could beat a 6-3 team?” The answer is very simple: Houston shouldn’t be 4-5. If they’d played the Browns’ schedule, they might be 6-3 too:

  • They’re scoring more points (206) that they’ve allowed (197), so they should have a winning record.
  • Four of their five losses have been to good teams:
    • Dallas (7-2) beat them 20-17 in overtime in Dallas
    • Pittsburgh (having one of its “up” weeks) beat them 30-23 in Pittsburgh.
    • Philly (7-3) won 31-21
    • Indianapolis (6-3) won 33-28
  • Three of those four losses were by less than a touchdown– two of them were on the road..
  • They have a better record against common opponents:
    • They won 30-14 (bigger margin) against Oakland in Oakland.
    • The 30-23 loss to Pittsburgh on the road is just slightly worse than Cleveland’s 30-27 loss.
    • They beat Tennessee 30-16 (bigger margin) also in Tennessee

The other wins came against Buffalo (which is 5-5; 23-17) and Washington (3-6; 17-6); the loss was to the Giants (who are 3-6) 30-17 in New Jersey.

The Browns lost to Jacksonville (now 1-9) and Tampa (whom they struggled to beat) is now 1-8)

But the big concern is the matchup:

  • The Browns are 31st in run defense (4.7 yards a carry); Houston is 8th in rushing offense (4.4 yards per carry).
  • Cleveland has struggled against teams who stacked the line and went after them– that’s what Houston is built to do.
  • The Texans biggest weakness is Fitzpatrick’s ability to throw picks; FS Tashaun Gipson, their best playmaker, is injured.
  • Both Texans receivers are big guys (Johnson 6’3″ and 219; Hopkins 6’1″ and 214); the Cleveland corners (Joe Haden and Buster Skrine) are short.

Plus,Houston is coming off the bye week and they have two road wins.

Outcome: These are two very similar teams– maybe if I lived in Houston, I’d be able to see all the flaws in the Texans, and would be more impressed by the Browns.

It’ll be cold today, and maybe the Texans won’t react well to that. They’ve only played one game in cold weather in the last four years; they beat the Bengals.

Maybe Thursday’s win against the Bengals was proof that the Browns are developing a killer instinct– and they’ll demonstrate that the result wasn’t because the Bengals were weak.

I’m gonna need to see that to believe it, though: Houston 21-17.

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