(Three points of interest in Saturday’s game)
JUST HANG ON
The Browns flirted with disaster all regular season but escaped largely unharmed. They led the NFL with 37 giveaways, more than two a game, yet went 11-6 and earned the top wild card spot in the AFC.
Continuing that lifestyle in the playoffs could be deadly. Turnovers are the easiest way for momentum to flip and a game that should be won slip away into a loss.
Coordinator Alex Van Pelt didn’t even want to talk about how the Browns were able to overcome the turnovers, which is usually the stat most indicative of success.
“Not looking into it that deep right now, just try not to turn the ball over,” he said. “The more I talk about it, the more I start sweating.”
The Browns had only one game without a turnover, the 27-0 win over the Cardinals. They had at least two in 13 games and went 5-6 in games in which they lost the turnover battle. While the giveaways didn’t stop for the offense, the defense leveled the field by starting to rack up the takeaways. Starting in Week 7, it forced 24 turnovers in the last 12 games.
“Every week when we talk to the team in a Saturday night meeting, it’s all about ball security first and foremost,” Van Pelt said. “And it ends with ball security. We’re last in the league in turnovers and they’re first in the league at not giving it away. So we got to play better there.”
This matchup is the first in the playoffs since the 1970 merger pitting the teams that committed the most and fewest turnovers. The Texans had 14 in 17 games and finished with a plus-10 turnover margin, as rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud threw only five interceptions. The Browns were minus-9. And as good as Joe Flacco has been, throwing 13 touchdowns in five starts, he threw eight interceptions.
“That’s the biggest stat in football, turnover differential,” receiver Amari Cooper said. “The thing about it is that we have a clear goal, though. We’ve turned the ball over. They haven’t turned the ball over much. That’s why we’re preparing. That’s why we work on our drills at practice because we need to fix that.”
HOLD THE EDGE
Flacco wasn’t sacked in the Browns’ 36-22 win in Houston on Christmas Eve. If the Browns can say that again Saturday night, odds are good they’ll have advanced to the divisional round. Texans rookie coach DeMeco Ryans was frustrated by the lack of pressure and will make it a priority to get after Flacco. The return of defensive ends Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard would help — Anderson didn’t play Dec. 24 and Greenard left in the first quarter — and they’re expected to play after being listed as questionable with ankle injuries. Greenard hasn’t played since the first matchup, while Anderson has been limited the last two weeks. Even if they play, their effectiveness remains to be seen, but Greenard had 12.5 sacks and Anderson seven.
“Those are great players,” Van Pelt said. “Greenard, we know what he brings. His productivity has been outstanding this year. And Anderson’s an extremely talented pass rusher as we know their strength is upfront in their D-line. That’s a good challenge. So I hope they’re healthy. We hope we get them at their best.”
Ryans could also try to manufacture pressure by blitzing. The Browns prepared for all scenarios, and either way will have to rely on left tackle Geron Christian and right tackle James Hudson III. Christian opened the year with the Texans before being cut. The Browns signed him off the street, and he’s started nine straight games after Jedrick Wills Jr. went down. Hudson took over for Dawand Jones, who had taken over for Jack Conklin, and has started five straight. Christian and Hudson have settled in, and the coaches have protected them with the scheme and help from the tight ends and running backs.
“They’ve been great,” Van Pelt said. “I’m really proud of those guys. James played really well the last few weeks. Geron’s playing well. It’s saved our bacon, so to speak, to have two guys that can hold up on the edge.”
“No one here is feeling like we’re doing a good enough job,” assistant line coach Scott Peters said. “Regardless of who’s in there, the standard is the standard and the guys understand what we expect.”
Christian said if Anderson and Greenard play, Anderson would line up against Hudson and he’d get Greenard.
“Anderson is more the power type of guy,” Christian said. “Greenard is more of a finesse, more of a speed-type rusher.”
A good way to alleviate pressure on Flacco is to run the ball. It keeps the pass rushers on their heels and wears down the defense. The Browns weren’t able to get the rushing attack off the ground in the first game in Houston, running 30 times for 54 yards. Jerome Ford carried 15 times for 25 yards.
“Just hone into the details. That’s what we’ve been preaching all week, details,” Ford said of what they need to do better. “And staying true to us and just doing what we do and making sure that everybody individually does their job so the whole thing can move.”
The run attack finished the season ranked 12th with 118.6 yards per game but went through a stretch of four straight games in December without reaching 100 yards. It got back on track with 127 yards in the playoff-clinching win over the Jets, which helped Flacco throw for 296 yards in the first half.
“I feel good about our run game,” Van Pelt said. “It hasn’t been as productive as the past run games, but at the same time, it’s just playoff football. You got to run the ball to win in these games, and we’re healthier upfront than we have been in awhile. We didn’t run it as well as we wanted to last time against this group, so it’s a big challenge for us and we’ve addressed it.”
The Texans have a strong front four, including tackles Sheldon Rankins (shoulder) and Maliek Collins (hip), and ranked sixth against the run (96.6 yards). The Colts had success last week, rushing 37 times for 227 yards. Left guard Joel Bitonio said the linemen must win their individual battles to provide room for Ford and Kareem Hunt.
“Any time the run game is struggling, there’s usually a bust on the block or one or two plays here and there,” he said. “They’re pretty elite against the run, all year. Honestly I think it comes down to execution for us and guys getting on blocks and staying on blocks and sustaining those blocks.”
Player in the NFL with at least 14 sacks in each of the past three seasons — Myles Garrett. He’s also the only player with at least 10 sacks in each of the past six seasons.
Times the Browns have led the NFL in defense. This year’s team (270.2 yards per game) joined those from 1950, ’52, ’54 and ’55. They won the NFL championship in ’50, ’54 and ’55.
Coach Kevin Stefanski’s record vs. the AFC South, including 4-0 vs. the Texans.
The individual and schematic matchups favor the Browns, who keep the Super Bowl dream alive. Browns 27, Texans 20.