BROWNS // TEXANS OVERVIEW
Browns vs Texans is an exciting real-life game between an 8-3 Houston squad that is riding an incredible eight game win streak as a defense-and-run-first team, vs a 4-6-1 Cleveland team that has won back-to-back games with a spread-the-opponent, ball-out-quick offensive game plan and an attacking defense that ranks second in the NFL in takeaways. In spite of their losing record, the Browns are still on the fringes of the playoff discussion.
Each of these teams plays at a fairly fast pace — enabling them to run an above-average number of plays per game while also allowing an above-average number of opponent plays, a setup that will open opportunities for volume to rise a bit on either side of the ball. Each team ranks in the bottom 10 in the NFL in drive success rate on offense, while the Texans rank behind only the Bears in lowest drive success rate allowed (the Browns rank middle of the pack on defense themselves). Both the Texans and the Browns play hard, aggressive football, and this game will likely come down to a few defensive gems or a few tight-window throws.
On a 13-game Main Slate that opened with six games carrying an Over/Under of 48.0 or higher, this game opened at 45.0, with the Texans installed as 4.5 point favorites. Houston boasts the more explosive offense and the superior defense — and they also have the benefit of playing this game at home — but the Browns have enough going for them to compete from start to finish.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
Houston has not shown many weaknesses against the pass this season, ranking eighth in yards allowed per pass attempt while picking up the sixth most sacks in the NFL and allowing the sixth fewest pass plays of 20+ yards. (Interestingly: the Texans have given up the fourth most pass plays of 40+ yards, as this team’s aggressive style leads to big breakdowns when something happens; this is more bookkeeping than actionable information, as only two teams have fewer pass plays of 40+ yards than this Browns offense that has morphed into a spread-style, quick-out attack.) Houston has allowed only 17 passing touchdowns to quarterbacks (just three more than league-leader Minnesota), and they have allowed the ninth fewest yards and the fewest touchdowns to wide receivers. This team also mixes and matches coverages constantly — regularly changing up their looks at the line of scrimmage in an effort to confuse quarterbacks. Baker Mayfield has shown a strong handle on the NFL game already, but this will be a difficult test for him. Working in his favor is five consecutive games with multiple touchdown passes. Working against him is a short-area passing attack that has yielded only one game in the Browns’ last five with more than 258 passing yards. In fact, Baker has thrown for 216 or fewer yards in three of his last five games.
This team has scaled back passing volume in back-to-back double-digit wins, but they should be able to push back into the “34 or more” pass attempt range in a game that should remain tight throughout — with the Texans the likelier team to be playing with a lead. Volume will be necessary if you want to bet on any of these pass catchers, as Mayfield has spread the ball around to eight to 10 pass catchers in each of his last five games. Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, and David Njoku are the only players with multiple games in this stretch of five or more targets. Landry has gone 7 // 5 // 5. Callaway has gone 5 // 2 // 5. Njoku has gone 5 // 1 // 5. A bet on Landry or Callaway is a bet on a broken play or a touchdown, with upside otherwise limited in this spot. A bet on Njoku is a bet on him seeing the five or more targets he should see in this spot, against a defense that has been far more attackable with tight ends than they have been with wide receivers, allowing the seventh most receptions, the sixth most yards, and the sixth most touchdowns to the position.
BROWNS RUN OFFENSE
The Texans have lived in opposing backfields this year, ranking fifth in adjusted line yards and fifth in yards allowed per carry. The Texans also excel on the second level (fourth in Football Outsiders’ second level ratings) and in the open field (second in FO’s open field ratings). Only two teams have allowed fewer rush plays of 20+ yards than the three the Texans have allowed. Houston has allowed zero run plays of 40+ yards. The Texans rank middle of the pack in receptions allowed to running backs, but only eight teams have allowed fewer receiving yards to the position.
Since Carlos Hyde was traded, Nick Chubb has at least 18 carries in every game, and he has seen target counts of 2 // 3 // 1 // 3 // 3. His workload and explosiveness will provide a slim path to upside, but his floor is obviously much lower this week than it was in three straight games against bottom-tier run defenses.
Behind Chubb, Duke Johnson has seen recent carry counts of 1 // 2 // 1 // 3 // 2, with target counts in this stretch of 4 // 3 // 9 // 4 // 2. He’ll need a spike in workload, a broken play, or one or two touchdowns to prove useful this week.
TEXANS PASS OFFENSE
The Browns have been one of the tougher teams in the league against the pass this year, ranking third in interceptions and allowing the seventh fewest yards per pass attempt — on the strength of a below-average aDOT, a below-average catch rate, and a below-average YAC/R rate allowed. With this team’s fast pace of play, they have faced the most opponent plays in the NFL — which has led to them facing the second most pass attempts in the NFL; but against a Houston team that ranks 30th in pass play rate and has not topped 25 pass attempts in nearly two months, the Browns’ per-play stoutness should matter more than their volume-based production allowance. Perhaps we see Deshaun Watson climb to 28 to 30 attempts in an elevated volume spot for the Texans as a whole, but barring a big, early lead from the Browns or a sudden change in offensive philosophy, a big volume game is a poor bet in a below-average matchup.
During this stretch of low-volume games for Watson, DeAndre Hopkins has seen target counts of only 6 // 8 // 7 // 12 // 6 // 6 — a disappointing setup for one of the highest-priced wide receivers on the slate. Hopkins will also see plenty of coverage from Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Denzel Ward — though volume is more of a concern than matchup for a player as good as Nuk. If he does not see a spike in volume in this spot, he’ll need an incredibly efficient game in order to pay off his price tag.
Volume is also hurting the prospects of Demaryius Thomas (target counts with the Texans of 3 // 1 // 5) and Keke Coutee (3 // 9 // 2 looks in his last three), creating a situation where you are left hoping for a volume spike or a busted coverage if you want to take a shot on one of these guys.
TEXANS RUN OFFENSE
The Browns have been one of the easiest teams in the NFL to run on, allowing an increase of 8.5% on the league-average YPC mark, while allowing 12 rushing touchdowns to running backs — the third most in the league. This is good news for a Houston attack that has become one of the run-heaviest units in the NFL, ranking third in rush play rate and holding Watson to 25 or fewer pass attempts in an incredible six consecutive games.
During this stretch of run-leaning play, Lamar Miller has seen carry counts of 15 // 22 // 18 // 12 // 20 // 12, with last week’s 12-carry game coming with Miller getting plenty of late rest in a blowout win. Miller has quietly gone for 86 or more rushing yards in four of his last five games (topping 100 yards in three of those games). He’s adding two to three targets most weeks, and he ranks 10th in red zone carries, giving him a decent all-around profile as a salary-saver back.
Behind Miller, Alfred Blue has double-digit carries in five of his last eight games, but he still has zero games all season with 50 or more yards on the ground.
Mayfield has been a person of interest for me in his last couple games, but not quite enough for me to actually pull the trigger while concentrating on a narrow core for a limited number of rosters. This week, he would be even tougher for me to pull the trigger on, as I expect volume to rise, but I also expect efficiency to dip in this difficult matchup. Mayfield still carries respectable upside, but his chances of getting there are slimmer than they were in pristine spots against the Falcons and the Bengals. I would also have a difficult time betting on his pass catchers in this difficult matchup, in a spread-the-wealth offense — though Njoku does carry enough upside to be considered as a tourney pivot off of the more popular Ebron. Njoku is probably only 30/70 to outscore Ebron — and even if he gets there, chances are he doesn’t separate from Ebron much. But Njoku is the best bet for yardage and touchdowns through the air for this squad, keeping him very much in the conversation.
There are better spots on the slate than the Browns’ backfield, and I’ll be looking to stay away from this unit myself. If you want to make a case for going here in tourneys: Chubb and Duke both have outside shots at upside, though this is obviously not the likeliest scenario, and each back carries dud potential into this game.
Even with this shift to a low-volume passing attack, Watson has a game with five passing touchdowns in this stretch, and another game with two passing touchdowns, 70 rushing yards, and a rushing touchdown — illustrating his ability to still pop for ceiling. He has also posted three absolute duds in this six game stretch, however, making him a truly boom/bust play at the moment. This shift in offensive identity has also turned Hopkins into a price-considered boom/bust option — making him a risk/reward play who falls shy on paper of those priced around him.
Lamar Miller is worth considering as a lower-priced back who can help you pay up in other spots while giving you a shot at 15 to 20 points. With a minimal pass game role and only four touchdowns on the year, the floor here is not exactly secure, but he should see close to 20 touches in a quality matchup, keeping him in the price-considered ceiling conversation.
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