So long, first place.
In a matter of a few hours, the Cleveland Browns went from holding first place in the AFC North to being tied in second place with two other teams after their 23-7 loss to the Houston Texans at home Sunday.
The Browns were unable to complete any fourth quarter magic and earn a comeback win against the Texans and their defense were beaten by a quarterback who never started in the NFL.
The last two Browns’ losses game against quarterbacks (Blake Bortles and Ryan Mallett) who had a combined four NFL starts when their respective game began.
While the offense lacked any punch, there is a bright spot: Josh Gordon will return next week.
The big storyline though was J.J. Watt dominating the game on both sides of the ball, including a touchdown catch for Mallett’s first touchdown pass.
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Here are 5 Moore Observations from the Browns’ fourth loss of the season:
1. War of Wisconsin
While Watt seemed to be involved on every play on offense, defense and special teams, it was fun to watch him lineup against former University of Wisconsin alum, Joe Thomas.
Watt did move around and took majority of defensive snaps line up on right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, we did see Watt vs. Thomas throughout the game.
One key play was Thomas earning a pancake against Watt. The two did not have any more memorable moments, but the battle between two All-Pros would make any Wisconsin alum smile.
Watt had the last laugh though, catching a touchdown pass, forcing and recovering a fumble and earning one sack. He did have two personal foul penalties on special teams, but his effect on the game was felt in a positive way for Houston.
2. Holding on to the ball
Rookie running back Isaiah Crowell got the starting nod against the Texans and carried the ball 14 of the team’s 24 rushing attempts for 61 yards.
But take away his longest run of 35 yards, he had only 26 yards on 13 carries. Add the fumble, which led to a Texans touchdown, and Crowell didn’t exactly do much to earn the trust from the coaching staff.
Crowell has had some problems holding on the ball during the season, but when he has been able to, he’s shown he can be productive and fun to watch.
With Ben Tate struggling and Terrance West not doing much to help his cause, it looks like Crowell is the best choice in the future. But he has to hold on to the ball.
3. Ryan Mallett wins Battle of Brady Backups
If you asked which quarterback looked like the rookie on Sunday, many would say Hoyer.
Mallett, in his first NFL start, completed 20-of-30 passes for 211 yards, including two touchdowns for a QB Rating of 95.3.
Hoyer finished the game 20-for-50 and threw for 330 yards, throwing a touchdown and an interception.
To Hoyer’s credit, lacking a primary receiver and productive running game didn’t help his cause. But he isn’t a quarterback that can make players better around him. He’s a game manager and needs players around him to make plays.
As the Browns were unable to run the ball effectively, the Texans were able to pressure Hoyer. It didn’t help that Hoyer was hurt with drops by his receivers.
The story was Mallett earning his first NFL victory as a starter, making key throws on third down and being able to manage the game when the Texans had a firm grasp with a lead.
And when can a quarterback say his first NFL touchdown pass was to a defensive end?
Nov 16, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Houston Texans running back Alfred Blue (28) is tackled by Cleveland Browns inside linebacker Chris Kirksey (58) during the fourth quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Texans beat the Browns 23-7. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
4. Feeling Blue against the run
The loss of Phil Taylor during the week hurt Cleveland Sunday against the Texans’ rushing attack. But with Houston’s best running back Arian Foster out with an injury of his own, the Browns seemed to have dodged a bullet.
They were wrong.
Rookie Alfred Blue stepped in and contributed to the Texans’ win over the Browns by gaining 156 yards on the ground on 36 carries. Although he didn’t reach the end zone, he did average 4.3 yards per carry and helped the offense be balanced throughout the game.
The Browns’ rush defense has struggled all season and it continued Sunday. Overall, they gave up 213 rushing yards on 54 carries, giving up almost four yards per carry.
If the Browns want to stay in the AFC North race, they will have to stop the run and not let teams become comfortable and be able to set up their passing game.
5. Welcome back Josh Gordon
While Hoyer has had success with the receivers on the current roster this season, there isn’t a better time for Josh Gordon to return to team.
With no Gordon or Jordan Cameron, the Browns have lacked a legit star receiver this season on a consistent basis. It showed Sunday as Miles Austin, who has been reliable this season, had a couple of key drops late in the game.
Andrew Hawkins, who had six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown, has been the most productive receiver and rookie Taylor Gabriel has surprised many with his play.
Adding Gordon instantly makes defenses focus their key gameplan on Gordon and will free already productive Hawkins and Gabriel against No. 2 and 3 defensive backs. The impact of Gordon is cannot be measured by stats. More importantly, it will help Hoyer and the running game.
You may think it will take a few weeks for Gordon to get back in “game shape”, but just because he has been banned from the team’s facility, does not mean he hasn’t been able to work out and catch passes on his own.
Teams will still have to respect the passing game with Gordon, and the end result should be an improved offense overall.
Moore Thoughts: Nick McDonald had a rough day at center, taking a step back from his performance the previous week…great to see Joe Haden get his first interception of the season on a nice play…the loss of Karlos Dansby will be felt as bad as the loss of Alex Mack…while the Browns made big plays against the Bengals, they lacked any big play against the Texans.