Like so many NFL clubs this time of year, the Cleveland Browns have almost an entire team on the injured reserve list. And the bad part is, they ain’t coming back to help in the playoffs.
Attrition is a horrible word. It can kill a very good roster, and for the Browns, it is certainly next man up. The problem is, that there are certain positions where there is such a drop-off from starter to backup. At times, it goes from Pro Bowler to man on the street.
Meanwhile, the Houston Texans are trying to get into the playoffs and need to be able to go through Cleveland in order to get there. With the AFC South Division Jacksonville Jaguars on a three-game losing streak, the Texans could find themselves atop the division instead.
This game became a banner day for seasoned veteran receiver Amari Cooper as he and QB Joe Flacco had gotten a nice bond working together despite not playing with each other for very long.
keep doubting us, we triple-dawg-dare ya! pic.twitter.com/HnA1rxp3Ey— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 24, 2023
The game between the two playoff contenders was tight with QB Joe Flacco finding veteran WR Amari Cooper for record yardage all day as they ousted the Texans 36-22.
So, who for the Browns played well? Who didn’t?
Defense owning the game: First half: The Texans were stymied via the passing game and just could not run either in the first two quarters. Houston’s two QB system had just 53 passing yards and 45 yards on the ground. Wow. Two sacks by Za’Darius Smith and Alex Wright and was a jail break on most passing downs. Get this: With the Texans on a second-and-three with 3:32 left before halftime, Cleveland rushed eight guys. Yes, eight. That was the Wright sack. Both linebackers JOK and Sione Takitaki plus S D’Anthony Bell rushed as well for the 10-yard loss. Houston’s first-half possessions: punt, punt, punt, kickoff return for touchdown, punt, punt, interception. Oh, and zero points. Will take that every single game.
WR Amari Cooper - The veteran put on a clinic as he had 173 first-half yards with a long of 75 yards and a score. His second-half effort was also impressive as he converted an impossible first down on the fourth-and-eight and then two minutes later he scored again as he got good open areas away from CB Derek Stingley. The fourth-and-seven completion with 3:49 left in the game was critical to keep possession and kill some more clock after Houston had crawled back into the game. His toe drag swag catch took the TV announcers by surprise as you could hear a collective gasp coming from their booth in disbelief. Exceptional day. Finished with 265 yards on just 11 catches with 15 targets and a 24.1 yards per reception average. He didn’t quite reach 300 yards as he sat out a good portion of the fourth quarter, but he did set a new Browns single-game record. This week’s AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Offense first half eight yards per play - Mostly due to the Flacco to Cooper connection, the offense moved the ball at will and had plenty of time to pass with the offensive line doing a great job.
Just as our former nemesis, Joe Flacco came out of retirement to lead us to the playoffs, 65-year-old Rich Karlis comes out of retirement to kick for us and put us in the AFC championship game.— Alan(The Commodore)Firestone (@AlanLFirestone) December 24, 2023
QB Joe Flacco - Not for one second to imply his game did not have flaws. There were. But the pluses far outgained the bad. Game manager? Hardly, more like a game winner. And did Flacco and Cooper eat at the same diner this morning or something? What a pair. This makes the third game in a row for Flacco to go over the 300-yard passing plateau as he finished with 357 yards on 25 completions. He had 246 yards in the first half alone. It began on the first play with a 53-yard completion to Cooper to the Texans’ five-yard line. Flacco to Coop again for 21 yards eight minutes later. Facing a third-and-four with 9:00 minutes left in the first quarter, Flacco was flushed and then tossed a dart to WR Cedric Tillman for the first down. The play of the game was the pass to Cooper with just over 12 minutes until halftime. Flacco faked to RB Jerome Ford with FB Nick Harris leading the blocking to the right, then he double-pumped towards Cooper who was streaking down the left sideline to which he snared the pass over CB D’Angelo Ross and raced to the end zone for a 14-0 lead. Flacco had good use of his tight ends as he found David Njoku for a first down on several occasions including the touchdown in the end zone over defenders Denzel Perryman and Adrian Amos. The first interception was thrown a bit short which enabled S Deandre Houston-Carson to close the gap and snare the ball. The second pick was a matter of not having his kicker able to come in and secure three points. Flacco did miss RB Kareem Hunt on a screen that would have gone for miles when he overthrew the back who had two offensive linemen in front of him. A very good game for Flacco, and the story continues.
Opening drive - Right out of the gate Flacco hit Cooper with a 53-yard completion to the five-yard line. The next two gained just two yards, but the touchdown was deceptive. As RB Jerome Ford lined up for the snap, Flacco set up on the right flat. As Ford ran right, it appeared to everyone that Ford was about to flip it back to Flacco, except Ford kept the ball behind the blocking of RT James Hudson and scored. The fake pitch fooled two defenders who peeled off Ford.
DE Za’Darius Smith - Have been waiting for ZDS to go off in a game, and it finally arrived. He had good pressure early on, then had a sack that was negated by a penalty. His first real sack came in the second quarter facing a key third-and-seven as DT Dalvin Tomlinson’s pressure pushed QB Casey Keenum to move into the waiting arms of ZDS. It was ZDS who batted the ball and JOK got the interception. With 34 ticks before the half, Keenum hit TE Dalton Schultz who made CB Greg Newsome to miss and had nothing but green in front of him except ZDS took him down from behind on the trail. The pick by S Duron Harmon was because ZDS was right on top of Keenum. Finished with two tackles, four QB hits, two sacks, two tackles for loss, and the pass defense.
LB Sione Takitaki - Thrown into a more prominent role now that Anthony Walker was sidelined, Takitaki had some really good plays and was the Browns leading tackler. On the first play of the second quarter, he nailed Schultz for a loss on a tight end screen which placed Houston into a third-and-11. A jet sweep in the second quarter looked promising but Takitaki made up ground as WR Michael Woods only gained seven yards when it looked like he was about to turn it upfield and scoot. Finished with seven total tackles.
Offensive line - Happy to have back Pocic and LG Joel Bitonio who had a very good game, especially in pass blocking. Flacco was only flushed out four times and sacked once. Both tackles, Hudson and Geron Christian, played well as their defensive end counterparts Derrick Barnett and Jerry Hughes had just eight total tackles all game.
Losing K Dustin Hopkins - While trying to make the tackle on the kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter, suddenly the Browns were without their Pro Bowl-leading voter kicker. Two-point conversions were the mainstay, and how many drives were taken inside the 30 only to have the offense have to use all four downs to score instead of simply taking the three points and moving on. And no backup scenario? Every team knows who their emergency QB is in case it comes to that, but nobody thought about knowing who their emergency kicker would be? The Browns got down to the 17-yard line with just over two minutes to play up by just 14 and could not convert, nor get three points.
Stefanski says that K Dustin Hopkins (hamstring) will be getting an MRI— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) December 24, 2023
Kickoff return for a touchdown - When Texans KR Dameon Pierce found his hole up the middle, there were eight orange helmets in the same vicinity, yet only CB Mike Ford was able to slightly nudge him before he darted right and then was gone. It was just strange to see so many bodies grouped up to which running lanes were abandoned. Despite Houston having zero offense, this one play put the home team back into the game and woke up their crowd.
Friggin’ penalties - Offsides Shelby Harris, holding M.J. Emerson, holding Ethan Pocic, illegal contact Emerson, holding Harris, holding Emerson. That was just the first half.
Missed tackles - Emerson (twice), Newsome, Takitaki, Jordan Akins, Alex Wright, Ronnie Hickman (twice), and Tomlinson.
Milk Bones – There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other
RB Pierre Strong - His first touch was a nice kickoff return of 36 yards. In the third quarter, he was hit after a three-yard gain and then bullied his way for eight yards to set up a second-and-two. Five carries for 22 yards. Not a banner day, but productive when called upon.
SS Duron Harmon - His interception paved the way for a big Browns lead. Had three tackles and a batted pass.
FS D’Anthony Bell - For the second week in a row had a great game as he was thrust into a starting role. With 1:10 left in the first quarter, a short pass to RB Devin Singletary became a missed tackle for Hickman to which Bell had come from behind and dove for the tackle with nothing but green in front of Singletary. Bell and Hickman nailed WR Nico Collins on a third-and-11 that forced yet another first-half punt. Bell was seen warming up for a possible field goal or extra point attempt when Hopkins went down and finished with five tackles, two batted passes and a QB hit.
The Browns have now beaten Zac Taylor, Kyle Shanahan, Shane Steichen, John Harbaugh and DeMeco Ryans, all candidates for Coach of the Year. That's 5 of their 10 wins.— Pete Smith (@_PeteSmith_) December 24, 2023
That should seal it for Kevin Stefanski.
TE David Njoku - Had some really good catches and blocked well. His touchdown catch in the second quarter was just a straight line route but he was able to gain some separation and made a really good catch that he immediately cradled as he approached the ground. Converted a key third-and-two with a four-yard out pattern to keep the drive going that ended up being the seven-yard Cooper touchdown grab.
Do you believe this Browns team can play deep into the playoffs with the amount of injured starters they have?
This poll is closed
Absolutely - it is called next man up
They have been lucky against inferior teams, and I see the wheels coming off