With Watt and Mercilus done, it's now Clowney's defense.
With Watt and Mercilus done, it's now Clowney's defense.
Photo by Eric Sauseda

NFL Football Week 6: Browns-Texans — Four Things to Watch For

After a week like last week, it's prudent to sit back and assess where the Houston Texans truly are heading into the meat of their schedule. I mean, you lose J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus within a few plays of each other, and you have Deshaun Watson balling out like a mother...yeah, this season is not exactly shaping up as we forecasted, good and bad.

That said, if you thought the Texans would be a 9-7 team again this season, they still have a great chance at being just that, despite the shift in the substance of what they're doing on each side of the ball. To that end, I asked my friend Rob Pizzola of Prediction Machine which Texans team is better, the 2016 defense-centric team as constructed in the playoffs last year or this team in 2017 without Watt and Mercilus, and with Watson emerging?

Here is what he came up with:

2016 Texans:
48.8 percent win expectancy against a league average team

2017 Texans pre-Watt & Mercilus injuries:
52.6 percent win expectancy against a league average team

2017 Texans post-Watt & Mercilus injuries:
49.3 percent win expectancy against a league average team

The 2017 Texans are still marginally better because their increase in productivity on offense this year (6.5 yards per pass, 4.5 yards per rush) is about a 5.2-point improvement over last season’s offense and makes up for the issues on defense. The 2016 offense was incredibly awful.

Make no mistake though, this Texans defense is much worse. They are expected to surrender about 4.2 more points per game than the defense from the postseason last year. Their 7.5 yards allowed per pass is really high and will likely come down, but there are a lot of holes. They were slightly worse than a league average defense in terms of efficiency with Watt and Mercilus in the lineup, and it will only get worse from there.

Maybe it's just me, but I find that type of stuff fascinating. We probably won't ascertain much this weekend with the wretched Browns coming to town, but it's fun to watch this team adapt to the hand it's been dealt. Here are some keys to this weekend's game...

4. Life after Watt and Mercilus
Last Sunday, this defense did not adapt well after the injuries to J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, but you can almost excuse any disorganization and poor play the night the injuries occur. Now, defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel has had a week to figure out a Plan B, and from a personnel standpoint, that means veteran free agents Kendall Langford and Lamarr Houston. Two things that will be non-negotiable if the Texans are going to win games — Zach Cunningham and Dylan Cole must continue to ball out, and Jadeveon Clowney needs to play like a former No. 1 overall pick.

3. Fuller Express keep rollin'
The identity of the Texans has changed suddenly in the past two weeks. This will now be a team that has to win games by scores of like 31-28, not 17-13 as we suspected in the B.D. (Before Deshaun) era. To be sure, Deshaun Watson is the biggest reason this transformation is feasible offensively, but perhaps the second biggest reason is the return of a healthy Will Fuller, who's been as reliable as he's been dynamic since returning. It should be fun seeing O'Brien continue to find ways to get the ball in Fuller's hands, and REALLY fun watching Fuller return punts on a regular basis.

2. More Foreman
By all rights, this game should be a comfortable Texans win, in which they are leading by a couple of touchdowns, at least, for most of the second half. So perhaps we will see more than just a small handful of carries for D'Onta Foreman. Foreman is potentially the Texans' most explosive all-around playmaker. O'Brien needs to gradually have Foreman shoulder the same workload as Miller, and for certain, he needs to be using Foreman in short yardage situations.

1. Emotional ticker
This is a game the Texans should win, and win handily. On paper, it all lines up that way. But what if Deshaun Watson gets off to a slow start? What if the defense doesn't adapt to its newfound personnel issues in the front seven? What if the Texans are already on their bye week and there are still three quarters left in the game? What if the Texans are already onto Seattle in Week 8? What if the crowd is slow arriving and there's a general malaise in the stadium that keeps the Browns hanging around?

A lot of "what ifs," but they won't matter...

SPREAD: Texans -9.5
PREDICTION: Texans 37, Browns 17
RECORD: 3-2 SU, 3-2 ATS

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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