There was a moment in the fourth quarter Sunday when Brian Cushing laid his second bone-crushing hit of the day on Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer that it appeared the "Battle of Tom Brady's Backups" would become the debut of Johnny Football. To Hoyer's credit, he hung in there, but it did no good as the Texans, led by another brilliant performance from JJ Watt, beat the Browns 23-7 in chilly Cleveland.
It would turn out to be a rather improbable win considering Arian Foster was ruled out with a groin injury and recently promoted backup QB Ryan Mallett, along with Hoyer a former Brady understudy in New England, got the first start of his four-year career. Mallett acquitted himself nicely with a 20-30 for 211 yards performance to go along with two touchdowns and one interception. But, it was rookie running back Alfred Blue who stole the show carrying the ball an unbelievable 36 times for 156 yards. The Texans ran roughshod over the Browns defense, racking up over 200 yards on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, the story lines included a ridiculous game from Watt (one sack, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery to go with back-to-back boneheaded roughing the kicker calls) and the return of Brian Cushing, who made his presence felt for the first time in weeks. The secondary was also very good despite missing Kareem Jackson, who is out with a knee injury.
No doubt, fans will be talking mostly about Mallett. For now, it is impossible to say what he will become, but his poise, command of the offense -- which was played in hurry-up mode all day long -- and cannon of an arm was a pleasant surprise. It is too soon to tell if he will ultimately be the answer for the Texans at the quarterback spot, but his first start was a good one and, most importantly, it resulted in a win.
Offensive Game Balls
Alfred Blue The big, strong rookie back out of LSU has gradually been getting more time behind Foster, but no one could have predicted this kind of offensive outburst. What was most impressive was his patience, something that was in stark contrast to Foster earlier in the season. But, as he has learned the game, he has gotten more comfortable and it showed on Sunday. This team needs Foster to win because the won't face Cleveland's defense every week, but having a capable backup who can shoulder the load is a huge plus down the stretch.
Ryan Mallett The kid deserves some praise, not so much because he wowed people out there, but because he was consistent and appeared in control of the offense throughout the game. His size and gun of an arm also allowed the team to not only take shots down the field, but make plays down the middle including a touchdown to Garrett Graham, one of the Texans all but forgotten tight ends. It wasn't a "wow" performance, but it was impressive nevertheless.
Defensive Game Ball (Retired)
Frankly, even when he isn't great, he's typically the best player on the field -- sometimes on either side of the ball -- so it seems only fair that his name be retired for the rest of the season from getting a game ball. Every game is a game ball for Watt. For this game, he should be getting MVP for his insane performance.
Defensive Game Balls
Brian Cushing Browns QB Brian Hoyer will have nightmares for weeks that involve being run over by freight trains with locomotives that look like the Texans' middle linebacker, who returned this week from injury. He only had four tackles, but he appeared to be much more mobile than the last time he was on the field and his two hits on Hoyer were at important points of the game and prevented completions down field.
Next Man Up From Mallett and Blue to A.J. Bouye and Akeem Dent, backups played a huge role in the Texans win on Sunday. Depth has been an issue for this team since week one, but it appears at least some of those key bench guys are starting to round into form and make substantial contributions.
Ben Tate The former Texan ended the day with a stat line that read 2 carries for -9 yards. He has not been good as he has struggled with injuries all year, something Houston fans will remember from his time here. To make matters worse, his replacement absolutely dominated the other side of the field. This will not go down as one of Tate's better days as a football player. What Should Stay the Same
The running game was stellar, but something that has plagued the Texans in recent years was noticeably absent on Sunday: stopping the opponent on third down. The Browns were 3-15 on third downs. That is a crazy number. Conversely, on offense they were 7-18 (at or better than 50 percent until they were trying to chew up the clock). Games are often won and lost on third down and, in Cleveland, the Texans were clearly the better team.
What Needs to Improve
Special teams continues to be an issue for the Texans. They had a missed field goal, two horrible drive-extending roughing the kicker penalties (both from JJ Watt, ouch) and allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown that, fortunately, came back on a holding penalty. They aren't the total clown show they have been the last couple seasons, but they remain well below average.
Damaris Johnson is a classic slot receiver, something the Texans haven't really had in quit a while. Under O'Brien, they are able to exploit Johnson's quickness and Mallett seems to have an interesting connection with him. He was targeted 8 times and had 5 catches for 21 yards, most of the possession variety. It's something Texans fans probably aren't used to seeing, but his emergence in the slot has been a big help in the passing game.
Coach Bill O'Brien had a plan and he stuck to it. To his credit, the team executed and it worked. They ran the ball down the throat of Cleveland's defense and it was successful even without Arian Foster. In the passing game, he allowed Ryan Mallett to play up tempo and trusted him to take shots down the field, while doing what he could to help him get into manageable third downs.
With Mallett taking over for Ryan Fitzpatrick, I suppose it is time to pull the plug on the ol' Fitz-o-Meter. Sad Fitzy is sad.
The Bird is the Word, Apparently
Quite a large number of pigeons appear to have taken roost at FirstEnergy Stadium and many of them decided to sit on the field during the game. As plays would commence, it started to look like a John Woo film minus the slow motion. And if that weren't strange enough, when Garrett Graham got into the end zone, he made a bird flying away motion with his hands during his celebration. Birds of a feather, I suppose.
Something You Probably Won't See Again for a Long Time
On back-to-back punts, JJ Watt ran into the kicker causing a pair of ridiculous roughing the kicker penalties. Rarely does Watt make mistakes like those, particularly the same ones in succession. He went on to have a whale of a game and they, fortunately, didn't hurt the team -- the Browns managed to convert one into their only touchdown of the day -- but it certainly was out of character.
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Play of the Day
Early in the game with the Texans on the Cleveland 2 yard line, JJ Watt lined up wide to the left -- yes, wide. Mallett quickly snapped the ball and threw a perfect fade route to Watt who make a diving catch in the corner of the end zone for his fourth touchdown of the game, the first time a defensive lineman has had four scores in a season since 1948.
The Texans face the team they dispatched in the first round of both of their playoff appearances, the Cincinnati Bengals at home. The Bengals will present a difficult challenge for the Texans on both sides of the ball and Cincy will have a week to prepare for and look at tape of Ryan Mallett.