The Cleveland Browns will come into Sunday's contest against the Houston Texans at 6-3, and in sole possession of first place in the AFC North. Should they beat the Texans, they'd be 7-3 heading to Atlanta, getting Josh Gordon back.
It's an exciting time for Browns fans. So let's take a look at my three reasons to be optimistic for a W against the Texans.
1. Ryan Mallett
The former Tom Brady backup (heard that before?) will make his first professional start on Sunday. Mallett entered the league with New England and sat behind Brady for 3 years, and then Ryan Fitzpatrick, of all people, this year. Coming out of the bye, Texans HC Bill O'Brien has ditched Fitz in favor of Mallett. He'll make his first tosses of the year against the Browns.
While Mallett will be making his first NFL start, he's also not inheriting much. The Texans currently sit 28th in passing, at just 209.7 yards per game through the air. They have yet to surpass 300 yards passing in a game this season. Mallett will have 7-time Pro Bowler Andre Johnson, but he's yet to eclipse the 100-yard mark this year. Johnson broke that mark six times last season.
The Browns may be without safety Tashaun Gipson, who is nursing a concussion. So that may play into the Texans favor. But, I still expect the Browns to take full advantage of Mallett's first pro start.
2. Cleveland's Defense
Piggybacking off the previous point, Ryan Mallett will be facing a Cleveland defense that has really stepped up in recent weeks. A lot of the success the Browns are having the past three weeks can be attributed to the defense's play. I mean, just look at what they did to Andy Dalton a week ago...that's a misdemeanor in some states.
A big portion of the Browns' defensive success is twofold. First, they're forcing turnovers. They intercepted Andy Dalton three times last week, and forced a fumble as well. Cleveland's turnover differential over their three-game win streak is +6. That's pretty darn good.
Secondly, they're getting pressure on the quarterback. I didn't say they're sacking the QB, but pressure. Sure, the Browns have registered 8 sacks over their last 3 games, but that's not all that great. The key is the pressure they're getting is forcing mistakes, and ultimately turnovers.
SportingCharts.com ranks QB Hurries, and right near the top of the list this year are Jabaal Sheard (ranked 3rd with 12 hurries) and Paul Kruger (ranked 10th with 10). The pressure they're getting on the QB is directly causing mistakes to be made, and ulimately the entire team is beneffiting from that. Look where they started their first drive of the game against Cincinnati. The Bengals' 18-yard line. That's because of the defense forcing the Craig Robertson INT.
Look for the defense to get after Ryan Mallett early and often Sunday.
3. Run Game
One of the major keys for the Browns on Sunday will be containing J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney (if he plays). The Texans may only have 19 sacks on the year, but Watt has to be accounted for at all times. One of the ways the Browns will do this, is follow their recipe they've had all season, run the ball, hit play-action.
The Texans are giving up 117.3 yards per game rushing, that ranks 21st in the NFL. Cleveland is coming off a game in which they ran the ball 52 times for 170 yards and 3 touchdowns. They'll need to try and exploit the Houston run defense early to establish a rhythm as they did against Cincinnati.
On the other side of the ball, the Browns defense will be squaring off against the AFC's leading rusher, Arian Foster. He is nursing a groin injury, but coming off their bye, he should be set for Sunday.
The Browns started the year 3-3, and part of the reason they started 3-3, was they couldn't stop the run to save their lives. They gave up a miserable 155.5 yards rushing per game through that stretch. Now, Cleveland is giving up 91.7 yards per game rushing over their three-game winning streak. That includes two games, against Oakland and Cincinnati, in which they didn't give up over 90 yards rushing.
Granted, there's a big difference between going up against what Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden have left, Denard Robinson, and rookie Jeremy Hill; compared to Arian Foster. The Browns rush defense has stepped up recently, and the results have been great for the team. On Sunday they'll get a big test against Foster.
I expect the run games for both sides of the ball to be pivotal in securing the W. The Browns offense will let the run game carry them, much as it did in Cinci last week. And on defense they'll try to bottle up Foster, and let Mallett try to beat them through the air. Should be another winning recipe.
The Browns are riding high off of their stellar performance against divisional foe Cincinnati last week. I was there in Cinci for that game and the energy was unreal, even though the Browns were the away team.
Now, they'll head home with three wins in row. We as Browns fans have been waiting to feel like this for a long time. For the reasons I outlined above, I'm optimistic to keep the feelings going.
What say you? Why are you optimistic for Sunday?