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.

“We picked a bad day to have a bad day,” said Browns coach Kevin Stefanski. “Just disappointing.”

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.

“We didn’t show up,” said Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward. “We needed to show up and we didn’t.”

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.

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.

The Browns’ defense gave up 286 yards in the first half, including Brevin Jordan’s 76-yard touchdown catch and run. Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

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.”

Houston located Cleveland’s vulnerabilities early and often. They got the 6-foot-4 Collins isolated on Newsome for a 38-yard completion that set up the first field goal. The Texans later picked on undrafted rookie safety Ronnie Hickman, who failed to stay with Schultz on an easy 37-yard touchdown pass the other way. Houston even capitalized on the aggressiveness of linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who was the lone Cleveland player on either side of the ball to bring his best, highlighted by his four tackles for loss.

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.

“It just comes down to doing our responsibilities,” said Owusu-Koramoah, who took the blame for the tight end touchdown, “and being patient with our jobs and make sure we fulfill those. We have to own those mistakes.”

The Browns kept on making mistakes. And when it became evident that Cleveland wouldn’t be able to slow down Stroud or the Texans, Schwartz opted against making any major adjustments, especially in coverage.

The Browns used single-high safety coverage 66% of the time during the regular season, more than any other defense in the league. On Saturday, Cleveland ran single-high on 81% of Stroud’s drop backs, according to Next Gen Stats. On those plays, Stroud torched the Browns, completing 13 of 17 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns.

“[We were] going to ride with what got us here and he’s not going to change up,” Garrett said. “There (weren’t) going to be any magic calls that (were) going to get us out of anything or get us doing anything.”

In turn, the Browns couldn’t get going or do much of anything against the youngest quarterback (22 years, 102 days) to ever win a playoff game in the Super Bowl era. The Browns didn’t bring their badassery to the postseason — and no-showed when it mattered most.

Gideon Canice

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