Houston- The Houston Texans dominated the majority of the game, with the offense moving the ball up and down the field with relative ease, but it was an opportune defense and a strong special teams showing that made the biggest difference in the Texans win over the Cleveland Browns, 29-13. Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn added to his league-leading field goals made (FGM) position with five more on the day, pushing his total to 29 on the season.
The Texans elevated their win streak to 9 games, putting them atop the AFC South with a three-game lead over the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans, who are both sitting at 6-6.
“I think these guys did a great job,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said of his team. “This is a good group of guys. When we bring them in the beginning of the week, we try to present to them a theme of the week and this week's theme was that Cleveland was ahead of us, because they played Sunday and we didn't play until Monday night so they had a day-and-a-half lead on us in preparation basically. And it had everything to do with trying to recover as fast as you could, get a jump on the tape with Cleveland, because they do a lot of different things. They do a good job in all three phases and give a lot of credit to our players. It's been a great team to coach. They really try to do what we ask them to do they're a bunch of awesome guys; it's been really fun to coach them.”
The Texans were able to force the Browns into all types of issues, making it tough for Baker Mayfield to execute at quarterback. With Jadeveon Clowney bearing down on him, Mayfield threw a one-handed pass out of thin air but it was caught by Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham for an interception. Cunningham was able to run over his one of his teammates and beat Mayfield to the end zone with a 28-yard return plus a dive and stretch of the football to open up a 17 point lead.
O’Brien discussed Cunningham’s game changing interception.
“That was a great play,” O’Brien explained. “To me that was one of the bigger plays in the game early on. And his ability to get it into the end zone the way that he did was really a great play. He's an excellent athlete. And that really helped us. It was 10-0 at that point and it made it 17-0. Big play in the game.”
The Texans forced that big turnover and gave themselves a cushion to play a ball control game heading into the second half. Having Cunningham back on the field has been a plus after he missed two games due to a sprained MCL.
“It definitely felt great for me just to get back out there and play with the guys and be able to do what I can to help the team,” Cunningham explained. “Like you said, I’ve been missing the past few weeks so it definitely feels great for me.”
The Browns held the ball for only 8:17 in the first half against the Texans, mustering just 74 total yards of offense. The Texans defense was able to force three interceptions off of Mayfield with Zach Cunningham, Johnathan Joseph, and Andre Hal as the beneficiaries.
“We talked about it all week that they were, like, plus 14. They were tied with Chicago for No. 1 in the league in the take away/give away column,” O’Brien said of creating turnovers on Sunday. “And we felt like if we didn't perform well in that category, we were going to have a long day. And I give credit to our players. They did a great job of really kind of really trying to follow that key to the game.”
O’Brien has worked to make sure the Texans appreciate the win but get it out of their mind in a hurry for their upcoming opponent. It has been a day-by-day approach for the Texans and that is exactly how the head coach likes it.
“I think the thing that I've noticed with this team is, and it has to continue, it is that it is a confident team, but it is a team that realizes it's very much of a week-to-week league,” O’Brien said of his team's win streak. “It's a week-to-week league. And I think what I've noticed and it has to continue is that they come in here on Monday, Wednesday, whenever the first day of the week is, and they're ready to review the film, correct mistakes, build on the things we're doing well and flip the page and start getting ready for the opponent that we have to play. I think that's the mindset.”
The Texans can clinch the AFC South win a win over the Colts in their week 14 matchup.
Inside the Locker Room
One thing that continues to stand out is the impact in the locker room by two players new to the Texans going into 2018: Tyrann Mathieu and Justin Reid. The safety duo are the perfect storm of a veteran trying to prove the team that cut him wrong and a rookie looking to convince the league that his 3rd round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft was a mistake. Together, they have changed the complexion of the Texans safety group. Mathieu impacts the dynamics in the locker room with his leadership and an edge that the defense knows it can count on. The edge that he brings to the table is one that is backed up on the field with his play where he is not afraid to speak his mind when needed. Mathieu, after a dropped interception, threw his red gloves to the sideline in disgust after missing an opportunity, as he told us in the locker room, “I want that one back.”
There is a growing sentiment inside the organization that Mathieu will be a priority to keep in Houston for the long term and, more importantly, Mathieu wants to stay in Houston.
As for Reid, he is a well beyond his years as a rookie, almost wise to a point. Credit his brother, Eric, for getting him ready for the NFL, his parents for how he was influenced growing up, and what he was able to accomplish at Stanford, both in the class room and on the football field. There is a gravitation to Reid when he speaks and he is a perfect fit for what Mathieu brings to the team. They glance each other and the two are always smiling. Their lockers right next to each other.
Also, add in Demaryius Thomas and what he has been able to bring to the locker room. The addition of Mathieu, Reid, and Thomas have really changed the dynamics inside the Texans locker room which is translating to results on the field.
Improved Running Game
There has been a discussion regarding the improved running game for the Texans and where it starts. Center Nick Martin talked with us after the win over the Browns about the big difference for the offensive line.
“Just staying consistent, you know, we are working after practice, during practice,” Martin said of the Texans success running the ball. “Film session with the o-line, it is just not the o-line. Lamar (Miller) is doing an unbelievable job, same with (Alfred) Blue. Deshaun (Watson) is getting us to the right play and I will tell you what, our receivers, DT (Demaryius Thomas), he can block.”
The offensive line has been getting the credit they deserve but Martin knows the unit has work to do, starting with its cohesion as a unit.
“You have to have five guys trying to be one every play,” Martin continued. “It is not easy, we are working at it.”
The past three games, the Texans have rushed for 139 yards against Washington, 281 against Tennessee, and 187 against Cleveland while the line opened up good lanes for Miller and Blue.
“We want to run the ball every play,” Martin explained. “We get excited; we get extra excited the way we are running the ball.”
The Texans rank 4th in the NFL in rushing yards per game which is helping take pressure off of Deshaun Watson, no longer feeling he has to carry the offense on his own.
“There is nothing better than running the ball down someone’s throat,” Martin said after the win. “It is old school ball, it is fun for everyone.”
Senio Kelemete on the Offensive Line Becoming One
One of the free agent additions, Senio Kelemete, has been a consistent force at the left guard position and helps provide steady play at the position. Kelemete acknowledged that the offensive line struggled to start the season but has been able to settle down as a group.
“I think everyone is just, we are all on the same page, honestly,” Kelemete said of the offensive line play. “Everyone is communicating up front at the line of scrimmage. Really, everyone is doing their job, that is what we tell each other every day. Just do your job and we will be fine.”
The Texans were giving up sacks and hits on Deshaun Watson but Kelemete knew that the offensive line would be fine.
“In the beginning of the season, it was a little rough,” Kelemete explained. “That shows the type of character we have in the room. We knew we were close. It is paying off now. You see out there we are running the ball well and protecting Deshaun better. It doesn’t matter who goes down, the next man mentality is for everyone.”
- Johnathan Joseph was injured late in the second quarter with a right shoulder injury trying to make a tackle on Browns RB Nick Chubb. He was ruled out for the second half. In the locker room, Joseph said he was going to be alright despite not returning to the field on Sunday.
- LB Brennan Scarlett was lost for the game due to a leg injury.
- OT Kendall Lamm exited the game with a concussion to start the 4th quarter. OL Martinas Rankin replaced him at right tackle.
- OG Zach Fulton missed the 4th quarter due to a left hand injury, OL Greg Mancz filled in for him at right guard.
Texans Inactives: WR Keke Coutee, WR Vyncint Smith, DB Deante Burton, DE Joel Heath, DE Carlos Watkins, OLB Duke Ejiofor, CB Natrell Jamerson
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