Game Plan Breakdown: Houston Texans Defense vs Cleveland Browns Offense

The Houston Texans sit atop the AFC South after their victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Week One commencement of the 2021-2022 NFL season. In Week Two, they head to Cleveland to take on the 0-1 Browns, who fell to the Kansas City Chiefs.

While I would be lying to you if I told you I was very confident in a Texans victory this week, I'm not counting us out and believe that on any given Sunday, any team can win or lose to any team. With that being said, I've constructed a game plan (defensive keys Friday, offensive keys Saturday!) that can improve the Texans' odds in achieving victory - let's get into it!

1. De-Establish the run

Much like the Texans, the heart of the Browns' offense is their run game. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are led by an elite offensive line which is made of mauling run blockers that are also sound in pass protection. If you believe in PFF, you'll be impressed by how the Browns OL graded out in Week One.

The Texans have a revamped defensive line, but honestly, there is a talent gap. The loss of starting defensive tackle Vincent Taylor will be mitigated slightly by the resigning of Jaleel Johnson, however, apart from hoping that 3/5 Browns' starters remain injured, the Texans also need to do more than just rely on their front four, versus the Browns front five.

Especially early in the game, the Texans should be stacking the box with seven or eight defenders and forcing Baker Mayfield to prove he can beat us with his arm. Furthermore, we'll have to play with heavier personnel (3 LBs instead of 2) to match the Browns tendency to utilize 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs), 12 personnel (1 RBs, 2 TEs) and 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TEs).

We can look to the Chiefs' recipe for success last week. The Browns still totalled 26 carries for 153 yards at 5.9 YPC, but the Chiefs were able to minimize gains on the ground when they did four things - stack the box, play three LBs, be disciplined in their run fits and get off blocks.

Look at this play where the Browns are in their 13 personnel, with three TEs - Harrison Bryant (88), Austin Hooper (81) and David Njoku (85). They are running power to the left, with right guard Wyatt Teller (77) pulling. The Chiefs counter this action by playing a 4-3 base defense - 4 defensive linemen with 3 linebackers - and also bring their deep safeties closer to the ball. The Chiefs don't have a dominant defensive line (minus Chris Jones) just like the Texans, so their best shot at stopping the run was beating the Browns' secondary blockers, their tight ends. Watch LB Nick Bolton (54) beat TE Harrison Bryant (88) to the outside, stack and shed the block for the tackle.

All four elements of the run defense the Texans need to execute were on display on that play.

  1. Stack the box: the Chiefs did so with seven defenders
  2. Play three LBs: Nick Bolton (54), Anthony Hitchens (56), Ben Niemann (53)
  3. Disciplined run fits: Bolton gained outside leverage vs his block
  4. Get off blocks: Bolton shed Bryant's block

The Texans front seven will need to be on top of their game, play disciplined football and use their underdog mentality as fuel to fight versus blocks and play physically. Furthermore, we know that the Texans like to play a lot of Nickel and get Desmond King on the field. He'll be massive in this matchup too, having to cover Jarvis Landry on occasion but also get his hands dirty in the run game.

Here, the Browns are in 12 personnel with David Njoku and Austin Hooper as the two TEs. The Chiefs are playing 3 LBs and have Safety Armani Watts (23) down in the slot, where Desmond King often lines up. The Browns want to run towards Watts but aren't able to block him. I'd expect them to clean that up this week, and King has got to be ready to engage blocks physically and bring the fight to the Browns.

The Texans certainly have a tough task ahead of them in slowing down the Browns' run game, but if they are able to stuff it early and get a lead on the Browns, they'll force more throwing actions than the Browns would like. Sometimes the best way to stop a team's strength is to just minimize their ability to call that play entirely - much easier said than done.

2. Discipline versus play-action

The second key for the Texans' defense is to stop the plays that the Browns are trying to set up after they run it down your throat. In 2020, the Browns called play-action on 30% of their drop backs and Mayfield finished in the top-6 among qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating (125.6), touchdown percentage (9.0 percent), wins above replacement (1.0), and expected points added (33.96) when using play action. When not using play-action, Mayfield’s completion percentage dropped by 7.9 points, yards per attempt by 3.1, passer rating by 42.3, and expected points added by 19.96.

Head coach and play caller Kevin Stefanski does an outstanding job of marrying the run and pass game by showing a run personnel+formation and calling play-action. Furthermore, the Browns' heavy formations are so dangerous because each of their TEs are also good receiving threats (combined 7 catches, 120 yards vs the Chiefs).

On this play, they are in 13 personnel again, with all three TEs lined up to the left side of the offensive line. Baker gives a hard run fake to the right and rolls out to his left to find the wide-open Harrison Bryant (88) who blocked and released. The player at fault here is LB Ben Niemann (56) who saw Mayfield rolling out and took a slight step in his direction, despite that not being his job. He needed to cover Bryant while letting DE Joshua Kaindoh (59) chase Mayfield.

Staying home and doing your job, not someone else's is going to be massive for the Texans and will test how disciplined and well-coached they are.

In addition to keying in on the Browns' TEs, the Texans can't forget about the speedy rookie WR Anthony Schwartz (3 catches, 69 yards vs Chiefs). The Browns won't do it too often, but they do want to take shot plays out of a heavy formation, and Schwartz burnt the Chiefs' defense with their own medicine.

The Browns are in 22 personnel (2 backs, 2 tight ends) and have Schwartz (10) as their lone receiver out wide, running a corner route. The Chiefs are in Cover 2, and thus this corner route is heading right into the hole of the defense.

There's not much the Chiefs could have done differently on this specific play except execute better. CB Charvarius Ward (35) wasn't going to sink that far downfield to take away the corner route, because he had to worry about Hooper (81) coming into his zone on a corner route himself.

Thus, the Texans' safety play needs to be on top of their game, whether it's Justin Reid or Eric Murray (Lonnie Johnson, anybody?) who are covering deep, they need to be wary of Schwartz, the Browns best deep threat with Odell Beckham Jr out.

3. Mess with Baker

The third key for the Texans' defense is to make Baker Mayfield's life as difficult as possible. The Browns rely on the run game and play-action for a reason - Mayfield isn't a great quarterback when he's put in compromising situations and needs to make off-script plays.

In addition, Baker is pretty solid at avoiding pressure coming from the edge, but it's more difficult to avoid pressure from the interior. The Texans will need defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Ross Blacklock to win their matchups versus the Browns guards, particularly Wyatt Teller (77).

On this play, the Browns have a Cover-2-beater dialed up, and the Chiefs are in Cover 2, so they are quite vulnerable. Landry (80) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (11) are both running rounded corner routes (like Schwartz did on the last play) and are headed to the holes in the Cover 2 (above the flat and in front of the safety on the sideline). However, Baker never gets the chance to hit either of them because of the pressure, forcing him to step up and scramble out.

Yes, the Browns still gained positive yardage here, but they could've easily had a touchdown to Landry if Mayfield had more time. Chiefs DT Jarran Reed (90) hits Teller (77) with a nice spin move, something we know Maliek Collins loves as well - I'll be watching for that move!

Furthermore, the Texans cannot just rely on a 4-man rush to pressure Mayfield. According to PFF, they ranked 24th in pressure rate (26.9%) versus the Jaguars, who have a far inferior OL to the Browns. Unfortunately, it would go against Lovie Smith's philosophy to suddenly become a heavy blitz team.

The Texans were 30th in the NFL in blitz% per PFF, sitting at just 8.6% and 5 total blitzes versus the Jaguars. I don't expect Lovie to change the formula that has gotten him here - as badly as he may need to - but we can still generate a blitz look, while just rushing four.

The Chiefs display the concept of a "simulated pressure" that the Texans should look to install. The Chiefs only rush four here, but it's not the four defensive linemen like you'd think. Instead, the defensive ends drop in coverage, the defensive tackles rush, and the Chiefs send two linebackers to form the four-man rush.

Screen Shot 2021-09-16 at 1.02.33 PM.png

This provides the best of both worlds that defensive coordinators love - the confusion and pressure gained by blitzing, PLUS the numbers advantage in coverage gained by still dropping seven defenders in zone. Furthermore, this simulated pressure aids the Chiefs in disguising their Tampa 2 coverage call.

Pre-snap, the Browns have two routes (highlighted in red) that could really take advantage of the coverage - the corner by Peoples-Jones (11) and the seam/post by Hooper (81).

Screen Shot 2021-09-16 at 1.02.41 PM.png

However, post-snap, Mayfield doesn't find either of those routes and misses three open routes underneath, because the defenders aren't in the same spot post-snap that he thought they would be pre-snap.

Screen Shot 2021-09-16 at 1.04.23 PM.png

To make matters worse, Mayfield leaves the pocket earlier than he'd like due to pressure from Nick Bolton (54) off the left edge and Khalen Saunders (99) off the right edge.

This simulated pressure out of a Tampa 2 doesn't have perfect coverage, but it confuses Mayfield just enough, forcing the scramble and incompletion. The Texans need to disguise their coverages more than they did versus Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars - Mayfield simply won't make the same rookie mistakes as Lawrence, unless you display a more complex defense.

Stray Thoughts

While I listed three main keys to slowing down the Browns defense, there are some other minor points that I do not want to forget. The Texans will have their hands full trying to limit WR Jarvis Landry, who is the Browns best receiving weapon ( 5 catches for 71 yards vs the Chiefs) and aligns outside, in the slot and will be used on gadget plays. Keeping two sets of eyes on him at all times might need to be something Lovie Smith goes to.

In addition, the Browns will surely look to get RB Kareem Hunt involved in the passing game (3 catches, 23 yards vs Chiefs). Whether he's coming out of the backfield or having screens set up for him, you don't want to let him get the ball in his hands, as he's a menace to tackle. Linebackers Kamu Grugier-Hill and hopefully Joe Thomas (not Kirksey or Cunningham please) will have their hands full with Hunt and need to use their physicality to prevent easy separation on routes.

Lastly, the Texans will need to force turnovers as often as they have been doing so far. They had three interceptions versus the Jaguars - beating their total of two in the 2020 season - and will need more of the same versus the Browns.

In the second half, the Chiefs held the Browns to just 7 of their total 29 points because they forced one interception, one fumble and one special teams turnover on a punt. Let's look at the game-sealing interception that Mayfield threw and oh what do you know, it came on a blitz where the Chiefs disguised their beloved Cover 2.

They still play with two safeties deep, showing a pre-snap 2-high shell but confuse the offense by crowding the line-of-scrimmage with six defenders. The Chiefs end up blitzing five, including their nickel cornerback and drop two defensive lineman in coverage. Again, we see that Mayfield struggles under pressure, cannot make the defense pay for dropping two 300lbs+ lineman and throws a gift of an interception.

I cannot stress enough how important it will be to give the Browns different looks and play a less vanilla game plan than they showed rookie Trevor Lawrence. Mayfield is a better quarterback who makes better decisions but like most quarterbacks, struggles under pressure, especially when the post-snap picture looks different from the pre-snap picture. Come on Lovie Smith, I want to believe in that glorious beard, show me something!

Alright, that's going to do it for the defensive side of the ball. If the Texans are getting a win versus the Browns, I think they'll need to hold them to around 21 points. Come back tomorrow for the Texans' offensive keys to do some damage!