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Browns to face injury-weakened Texans defense

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The Houston Texans lost two key members of their defense to injuries in Week 5. Can that open the door for the Browns to earn their first victory of the season?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Hogan is the new starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, and he appears to have caught somewhat of a break in his 2017 debut. Set to face the venerable Houston Texans defense, Hogan will at least not have to avoid the pressure from two of the team’s most highly-regarded pass-rushers. Defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus have both been placed on injured reserve, according to Texans coach Bill O’Brien:

Watt suffered a leg injury in his team’s Week 5 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs; Mercilus suffered a torn pectoral in the contest and both players’ seasons are now over. In addition, linebacker Jadeveon Clowney did not practice on either Wednesday or Thursday with a knee injury. Even if he suits up on Sunday, it’s likely to be at less than 100 percent health.

While this does present a break of sorts for Hogan and a Browns offensive line that has contributed to the team’s quarterbacks being sacked 14 times this season, it may not be enough to tip the scales in the Browns’ favor. Think back to Week 2’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore currently has 14 players on injured reserve and another three expected not to play in Week 6. When the two teams met in September, most of those 14 IR’d players were already done for the season, and though that assisted the Browns in putting up 346 yards of total offense, Baltimore still won the game, 24-10.

Further, scoring has been a struggle for the Browns this season, with only 77 points on the year. While Cleveland’s red-zone opportunities could certainly rise with Watt and Mercilus out and Clowney hobbled, it’s what are done with those opportunities that matters most. The Browns are scoring touchdowns on just 50 percent of their red-zone appearances this season while averaging 2.8 red-zone trips per game. Houston, meanwhile, is allowing touchdowns to their opponents on 53.33 percent of their red-zone appearances.

The other thing to keep in mind is that neither Watt nor Mercilus were having outstanding seasons prior to Week 5. Mercilus has 10 total tackles and one sack in his five starts, while Watt has totaled 15 tackles and has no sacks, and Football Outsiders has Houston’s pass rush ranking 19th in the league this season, and that’s with the two starters in the fold.

The real concern for the Browns on Sunday is instead their own defense. Though it ranks fifth in yards allowed, it is also 25th in points allowed, while Houston’s offense is currently fourth in scoring and 12th in yardage. Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson is averaging 214 passing yards per game and has a quarterback rating of 100.7, a number that should only rise against the Browns this week. As Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith pointed out on Wednesday, quarterbacks who have faced Cleveland’s defense this year are posting up passer ratings that are up to 70 points higher than their season-long average.

Either way, the outcome of Sunday’s game has a reach farther than just Week 6 or the 2017 season. The Browns are the owners of the Texans’ 2018 Rounds 1 and 2 draft picks, acquired alongside since-departed quarterback Brock Osweiler. A Browns win could ultimately increase the value of the two picks. Though with the Browns currently winless—and on pace to again hold the No. 1 overall pick—and the Texans a not-so-inspiring 2-3, a lot can change between now and next April. It is, however, something to keep in mind when these two teams meet at NRG Stadium on Sunday.