It felt great. Almost too great. To care about football into the first weekend of December. And I’m not talking care about casually, as a good portion of the die-hard Browns fan base does. I’m talking really care, like playing with a chance to see the playoffs type of care. The Browns haven’t provided this for their fans since 2014, and before 2014 it was 2007. NFL games that truly matter in December is a taste like none other. You can call it “fool’s gold” or whatever label you want, but had the Browns won it meant a serious shot at the playoffs.
Now, the hype ended quickly. Two quarters to be exact, but it doesn’t change the strides made to get to this point. One game doesn’t erase several before it. The Browns have slowly worked their way into consideration as a real challenge week to week. They have taken the actual strides we all hoped to see from the direction of Hue Jackson yet we sat and twiddled our thumbs just hoping. The strides can’t be ignored, the same way the dose of reality can’t be ignored as well. As with all things in life, the middle ground is the best.
Texans dial up the right game plan
Far too often defensive coordinators have lumped Baker Mayfield into the masses of other rookie quarterbacks. The thought process is blitz him and throw as much as possible at him to make things confusing and fast for the rookie. Well, Mayfield isn’t your typical rookie. For the most part, he has beat the blitz this year and it has led to some of his bigger performances. The Texans decided to shift the mold and make Mayfield sit in and beat them. The idea being force Mayfield into tight window throws (which he will always make risks throwing), and shrink the feel of the secondary.
It worked. The Texans used the schemes to the tune of three Mayfield first half interceptions. They had the rookie rushing through his thought-process and capitalized on a few of those risky decisions. The Texans riding into half at 23-0 was a case of humble pie for the Browns.
The NFL is an adjustment league. The opposition throw something at you, and you then have to find a way to beat it. Following the rough performance in the opening two acts, how Mayfield handled the rest of the game was the most important aspect to me. When you throw three interceptions in a half, it can ruin your psyche. You can become hesitant and reluctant, not trusting what you’re seeing snap to snap.
The game’s key silver-lining was that Mayfield made the adjustment necessary and was his usual self in the second half. In the game’s final two quarters Mayfield was 24-30 for 354 yards and a touchdown. He was the first quarterback in two years to throw for 350+ yards in the second half of a game.
The Texans stuck with what had worked for them in the first half, and played aggressive in the secondary. This wasn’t a prevent defense in any form. The mentality of the Texans likely shifted, but they wanted to embarrass Mayfield, yet they couldn’t. Sure, it was “garbage time” but the rookie impressed the Texans by ripping several tight window throws and keeping several plays alive with his legs for big plays downfield.
It was incredible how many Texans pointed out how great Baker Mayfield is at QB. Many called him decisive, poised, strong, quick, all of it genuine. He’s going to be star. #Browns
— Dianna Russini (@diannaESPN) December 2, 2018
Leaving this game it was not hard to see the difference in the current state of the Texans franchise as opposed to the Browns. The Texans have the model for which the Browns should follow. They have drafted and groomed talent across both sides of the football. They have two elite edge rushers, experience and quality across the secondary, drafted one of the league’s premier receivers, and moved up to take their franchise quarterback.
The Browns have some of those pieces, but they are seeking more. They could use a dominant No. 1 type receiver, but with Mayfield it isn’t a dire need. They have to find that second elite rusher, and must find the type of stability up front on defense that has made Houston of the league’s best defenses.
Bill O’Brien has brought continuity and innovation to both sides of the ball in Houston. The roster has slowly been built to lack much of any weakness outside of the offensive line. Yet, O’Brien and his offensive staff have been fantastic in helping the line overcome its limitations with schematic adjustments and wrinkles. Cleveland will aim to find that in their next coach and these last four games will be key auditions for many across the roster and the coaching offices.