The Cleveland Browns, led by Kevin Stefanski and Jim Schwartz, concluded a remarkable season with a humiliating playoff loss to the Houston Texans. The magical carriage finally turned back into the big, orange pumpkin that we all learned to love.
The clock didn’t strike midnight until the second half when Joe Flacco threw two pick-sixes on back-to-back drives. The first interception was a misfire when he attempted to whip the ball out of bounds before his legs, and the power they generated, were taken out. The second interception was a forced error on fourth and two.
The Browns’ offense couldn’t overcome spotting the Texans 14 points and slid further behind as they tried to catch up. Flacco had been playing very well up to that point. The team’s failures happened as a collective. There’s no singular player to blame; even the players who performed well had costly mistakes.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah played every snap on defense for the first time in his career. He made many plays around the ball. However, he failed to contain the edge on Devin Singletary’s 19-yard touchdown run that iced the game.
The team had a meltdown. In the final studs and duds, there are only “duds,” starting with the coaching staff who failed to put the players in positions to succeed.
Dud: Offensive Coaching Staff
An adage about the NFL Playoffs is that the games are won Monday through Saturday, and the game is about executing. The cliché was evident on Saturday. The Texans’ coaching staff knew exactly what Kevin Stefanski and Jim Schwartz had planned for them. They easily negated the Browns’ game plan on both sides of the ball.
Demeco Ryans knew the Browns wanted to attack their defense with play-action passes and targets to Amari Cooper. The Texans shut down both of those options. While a large lead is the most effective way to stop a play-action passing attack, it cannot take all the credit. The Texans’ safeties and linebackers were not fooled against the Browns’ putrid rushing attack. They stayed disciplined and covered their zones instead of attacking the line of scrimmage.
The Texans had another change-up. Former top-3 pick Derek Stingley Jr. shadowed Amari Cooper all over the field. Before the playoff matchup, Stingley only stayed on the right side of the field, forcing teams to pass the ball to the other side.
The Browns had no shifts or presnap motions to get Cooper on different cornerbacks. The Texans neutralized the Browns’ passing attack by shutting down Cooper. Stefanski and the offensive staff cannot allow their lead wide receiver to be phased out of a game again.
Dud: Defensive Coaching Staff
The Texans’ offensive coordinator, Bobby Slowik, is generating a lot of interest as a Head Coach, and games like Saturday are a major reason why. Slowik carved up the best defense in regular-season history. The Texans knew every weak spot in the defense and just kept pushing those buttons.
The Browns’ defense is susceptible to offenses that attack them horizontally. The Browns want their defenders to play downhill, so naturally, their flanks are weaker. Teams can use presnap motion to get free releases toward the outside.
The Texans used a lot of motion, making Greg Newsome II track receivers across the formation and making the safeties flip defensive responsibilities. Newsome and the safeties were targeted all game as a result.
The Texans’ game plan was radically different than when they played the Browns on Christmas Eve. It is to be expected considering how many of their star players missed the first game with injuries. Meanwhile, the Browns’ coaching staff seemed fine with their previous game plan. They didn’t introduce any changes to their original plan. It showed on Saturday.
The Browns got out-coached. One of the few times it happened this season, but at the most costly moment. The Texans found another gear when the playoffs started, and they left the Browns in the dust.
Dud: The Safeties
The Houston Texans went into Saturday’s game with the mission of attacking the safeties, Juan Thornhill and Ronnie Hickman Jr. The pair didn’t put up much of a fight against the Texans as they played poorly all game.
The Texans took advantage of the safeties’ aggressiveness. They called a lot of play-action passes and run-pass options to force the safeties to trigger down into the run fits before launching the ball over their heads.
Thornhill had one of the worst plays of the game on the Dalton Schultz touchdown catch. Thornhill was responsible for the deep zone Schultz ran through but vacated it to chase Nico Collins. The greedy play cost the team a touchdown.
Hickman’s worst play of the game happened on the 76-yard touchdown to Brevin Jordan. Hickman and Martin Emerson Jr. tried to usher Jordan toward the sideline. Both players gave minimal effort, and Jordan punished them when he cut inside.
The defense is too good to be derailed by selfish plays. When the pressure is on, the defense needs to trust each other even more to make the right play.
Dud: Greg Newsome II
Greg Newsome II was picked on the entire game. Newsome won a couple of battles but lost most of them. Newsome was another player whose aggressiveness was used against them.
Newsome gave up a 38-yard bomb to Nico Collins when he cut underneath Collins, thinking the route was a slant instead of a slant-and-go. The big play set up the Texans within the 3-yard line where they would settle for a field goal.
The Texans ran a lot of presnap motion, forcing Newsome to chase the receiver before the snap. Newsome was slow to follow on a couple of plays that set up easy completions for the Texans.
Newsome continues struggling in the slot position. The Browns will need to figure out what to do with him this offseason. Newsome is a very good cornerback who struggles with the physicality and urgency needed in the slot.
Dud: Offensive Tackles
The Cleveland Browns went through three offensive tackles in the game against the Texans. None of them played remotely well. The duo of James Hudson III and Geron Christian has been serviceable for the past month. Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard were too powerful for the pair of bookends.
According to Next Gen Stats, Anderson notched five pressures and one sack in his 16 matchups with Christian. Anderson made it impossible to run toward his side.
Hudson could not handle Greenard and Derek Barnett. The two defensive ends bull-rushed him into Joe Flacco’s lap on every snap.
The Browns found no success through the air as their tackles couldn’t hold up long enough for receivers to get open. Flacco did an adequate job of managing the pressure, but it eliminated any deep throws.
The tackles have been turnstiles in the run game. They’ve allowed any defender to blow up the Browns running backs. The game was a culmination of all the failures that have haunted the offense over the past month. At least the end of the season stops the nightmare of not having starting quality tackles.
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