Cleveland Browns: defense falls flat vs. Houston Texans

HOUSTON — Cleveland Browns defenders, who all year had embraced coordinator Jim Schwartz’s mantra of playing with “effort, swag and badassery,” sat mostly silent in the visitors locker room.

 

The Browns’ No. 1 ranked defense had just played its worst game of the year in its biggest game of the year.

 

Cleveland’s vaunted pass rush, headlined by Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner Myles Garrett, produced one quarterback hurry and zero sacks against Houston Texans rookie passer C.J. Stroud. Cleveland’s spectacular secondary turned Houston receivers loose for big plays reminiscent of the breakdowns that plagued the unit last season. And Cleveland’s previously hard-hitting and sure-tackling defenders repeatedly whiffed trying corral Houston’s ball-carriers.

 

The upstart Texans crushed the Browns 45-14 on Saturday to advance past the wild-card round in a humbling rout that could’ve been worse. Had Houston tight end Dalton Schultz caught a downfield pass that bounced off his hands on the opening drive, and had Stroud not overthrown a wide-open Nico Collins in the end zone in the second quarter, the Texans could’ve had a chance to put up 60 points.

 

 

The Browns entered the playoffs looking like it had the goods to make a deep run. Cleveland’s defense had been the most dominant unit of any to make the postseason. The Browns shut down the San Francisco 49ers’ top-ranked offense in October. They rattled likely MVP Lamar Jackson in November. And they surged into the playoffs with a string of stifling performances in December.

 

But in January, when it really counted, Cleveland’s defense flatlined.

 

Stroud completed 16 of 21 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns before exiting early in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand.

 

 

Browns quarterback Joe Flacco’s back-to-back pick-sixes eliminated any hope of another Cleveland comeback. But Stroud was cooking the Browns defense long before that. The Texans’ 24 first-half points were the most the Browns defense had surrendered this year. And Houston’s 286 yards were the most Cleveland had allowed in any half all season.

 

“They outplayed us,” said defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. “Never thought I’d say something like that. We didn’t play our standard of football.”

 

 

In the first quarter, the Texans lured Owusu-Koramoah and Cleveland’s other linebackers in with a fake pitch right. That opened up a screen the other way to Collins, who coasted in for Houston’s first touchdown. On the opening play of Houston’s next possession, Stroud rolled right off play-action. Instead of sticking with tight end Brevin Jordan, who looked like he would stay in and block on the play, Owusu-Koramoah went after Stroud along with defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo. Stroud tossed the ball to the uncovered Jordan, who dashed through cornerback Martin Emerson Jr.’s arm tackle on the way to a 76-yard touchdown. The Texans took back the lead, 17-14, and never relinquished it.

 

 

Gideon Canice

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