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C.J. Stroud presents a challenge to Browns defense

Cleveland’s dominant defense gets its first opportunity against Houston Texans rookie QB coming off an impressive regular season.

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns will face a familiar foe on Saturday when they take on the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round of the NFL Playoffs.

It was just 17 days ago, after all, that the two teams played each other at NRG Stadium, a day that saw the Browns jump out to a 36-7 lead before allowing a pair of garbage-time touchdowns to the Texans.

There is one major difference this time, however, as the Browns will be facing a Houston offense led by quarterback C.J. Stroud, who missed the regular-season game with a concussion, as opposed to Case Keenum and Davis Mills, who combined to complete just 53 percent of their pass attempts that day, while tossing two interceptions and taking three sacks.

The Texans were a different offense with Stroud running the show as they put up 30 or more points four times and the rookie quarterback passed for 4,108 yards, 23 touchdowns, and just five interceptions while completing 63.8 percent of his passes.

Stroud also posted a quarterback rating of 100.8, which puts him at the table with the likes of Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins (101.1), Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys (105.9), Brock Purdy of the San Francisco 49ers (113.0), and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens (102.7).

In other words, Stroud presents a challenge to the Browns, even if he will be without wide receiver Tank Dell, who is on the injured reserve list.

As well as Stroud played this season, no quarterback is perfect and the Texans a win on the season’s final weekend, along with an epic collapse by the Jacksonville Jaguars, to make the postseason.

Looking through the schedule shows Stroud had a four-game stretch in October where he struggled against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, and Carolina Panthers - not exactly a daunting gauntlet - and completed just 56 percent of his pass attempts and averaged just 223.5 passing yards per game.

However, Stroud still tossed five touchdown passes and only one interception, and the Texans managed to split those four games.

The same was true of what at the time was Stroud’s worst game of the season, which came in Week 11 against the Arizona Cardinals. Stroud threw three interceptions that day, including on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter, and the Texans did not score in the second half, but Houston still managed to win the game. (Although that may have had as much to do with the Cardinals as it did the Texans.)

Three weeks later Stroud delivered a true dud in a loss to the New York Jets as he completed only 43.5 percent of his passes for 91 yards and took four sacks before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion. The Jets held Houston to just 135 yards of total offense and the Texans were just one of 12 on third down.

The game against the Jets might provide some clues as to what the Browns can do to slow down Stroud as New York was able to pressure Stroud on 30.8 percent of his pass attempts (per Pro Football Focus) and the Jets secondary stepped up its game.

Houston’s offensive line has struggled to find consistency this season due to injuries and allowed a sack on 20 percent or more of the times that Stroud has been under pressure eight times this season. Cleveland’s defensive front should be able to pressure Stroud, and even if that pressure does not result in a sack, forcing the quarterback to throw the ball away or short of the first-down marker has helped the defense be the league’s best on third down.

It is a challenge that Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is well aware of, as he said on Wednesday when asked about Stroud (quote via a team-provided transcript):

“(Stroud is) obviously a rookie, but he has a command that goes beyond usually the scope of a rookie. (He is) decisive with the ball, an accurate passer who can buy some time and makes big plays down the field. I think when it’s all said and done, the fact that he’s passed for as many yards as he has without turning the ball over is really impressive for a young guy. Usually, the cost of doing business if you’re going to throw a lot of yards is you also turn the ball over a lot.

“We’re going to have to play tight coverage, we’re going to have to stay after him in the pass rush, and we’re going to have to limit the run after the catch because he does a good job of giving his guys opportunities to run after the catch, including Nico Collins. That’s one of the things he does best.”

Collins has been a favorite among Houston quarterbacks as he has been targeted a team-high 109 times and leads the Texans with 80 receptions, 1,297 receiving yards, and eight touchdown catches. The Browns secondary is among the league’s best, however, and may be getting a boost if safety Grant Delpit makes it back onto the field after spending the past month on the injured reserve list.

It is probably over-simplifying things a bit, but if the Browns can get consistent pressure on Stroud and if he has no one to throw to thanks to tight coverage from the secondary, the Browns should be able to offer up a sequel to their Week 16 win that the Texans would find disappointing.