Friday, November 14, 2014

It’s much more than Brady Backup Bowl

The Browns-Houston Texans game Sunday in Cleveland is being billed as the Tom Brady Backup Bowl. Why?

Other than it being a coincidence the quarterbacks for the two clubs backed up the future Hall of Famer for the New England Patriots, it’s a reach to sell it that way.

It sort of sounds as though Brian Hoyer for the Browns and Ryan Mallett for the Texans are equals when they are, in fact, quite the opposite. The only commonality is they spent a year together in 2012 backing up Brady and are pocket passers. Other than that, they are almost total opposites.

Hoyer is 6-2, 215 pounds with an average at best throwing arm. Mallett is 6-6, 245 pounds with a bazooka masquerading as his throwing arm. He is the Travis Rosenthal and Aroldis Chapman of the National Football League.

Hoyer makes his 13th NFL start Sunday. Mallett makes his debut as a starting professional quarterback. He’s an NFL baby right out of the womb.

Hoyer plays the game from his shoulders up. We have no idea how to describe Mallet’s style because he has no body of work. We can only assume he has no changeups in his arsenal.

Mallett received his brief NFL baptism in 2012, appearing in four games long enough to complete one of four passes for 17 yards and an interception. He watched Brady all last season and was traded to the Texans this year when Jimmy Garoppolo arrived in New England.

This season, he has taken one snap, a kneel-down on the last play of the Texans 30-14 victory at Oakland in week two. Other than that, he has been a spectator while Ryan Fitzpatrick guided his team, which has lost three of the last four games, to a 4-5 record.

New Texans coach Bill O’Brien, Hoyer’s and Mallett’s quarterbacks coach in New England before he succeeded Joe Paterno at Penn State, had seen enough of Fitzpatrick and decided to make the switch during the team’s bye week.

Mallett is a blank canvas. No one knows what to expect from him Sunday. Obviously not the Browns. There’s no tape of him to study other than his college tapes at Arkansas. They have no idea what his weaknesses are on this level. All they can do is guess and quickly exploit what weaknesses they find during the game.

O’Brien doesn’t know, either. Neither do his teammates. They can go only by what they see in practice where he has played the opposing quarterback until now.

They all know he can throw the ball with extreme velocity. But can he be effective with his short and intermediate range passes? For what it’s worth, he had problems with those types of passes in college.

What kind of a leader can he be? How confident will he be in the huddle? How much of Brady’s brilliance in that area has rubbed off on him? It has with Hoyer, whose 6-3 record this season has elevated his stature in the huddle.

The Browns’ defense will know where to find Mallett, though. He will be in or very near the pocket. That much is certain. If his college stats are any indication, he has the agility of a giraffe.

In his final two years at Arkansas, he ran the ball 102 times, most of them scrambles, for minus-103 yards. He also threw for 7,493 yards and 62 touchdowns with 19 interceptions. But he was sacked 50 times in 26 games, losing 305 yards.

So how are the Browns going to defend Mallett? Play it safe and give him room to make mistakes? Or pound him relentlessly with a series of blitzes to see how he handles the pressure?

The Houston offensive line gives up two sacks a game and Mallett is not the most nimble man in or out of the pocket. His success lies in his ability to get rid of the ball quickly.

Where he has an advantage, and where the Browns are weakest, is the Texans have a solid running game. The Browns have allowed 134 yards a game on the ground this season. However, they have pared that figure to 92 a game recently during their three-game winning streak.

Arian Foster, who ranks behind only Dallas’ DeMarco Murray in rushing this season, has compiled 10 touchdowns, seven on the ground. He is just as dangerous a receiver (229 yards) as he is a runner (822 yards).

With Fitzpatrick at quarterback, everything ran through Foster, who averages 5.62 yards a touch. The Texans run the ball almost 55% of the time. That most likely will change with Mallett, whose forte is the forward pass. When you have wide receivers like Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, you need to keep them busy.

Foster is currently listed as questionable with a groin injury suffered in a loss to Philadelphia two weeks ago and is expected to be a game-day decision. Groin injuries can be cranky and linger. If he doesn’t go, rookie Alfred Blue gets the call.

If it’s Blue, that doesn’t mean the Cleveland defense gets a break. It has struggled this season against runners making their starting debuts. Jacksonville’s Denard Robinson and Lorenzo Taliaferro of Baltimore leap immediately to mind. Losing Phil Taylor for the season does not help.

The game provides Browns fans with their first opportunity to watch the best defensive player in the NFL in end J. J. Watt, who has racked up 48 sacks in just 57 games.  Watt and Akron native Whitney Mercilus have 12½ of the club’s 20 sacks.

Watt plays mostly on the weak side, which means he’ll be matched up most of the afternoon with Browns tackle Joe Thomas in a battle of former University of Wisconsin Badgers. Now we’ll find out just how good Thomas is in what promises to be the best matchup of the day. Whoever wins that battle could determine who wins this one.

One stat to ponder: The Browns have surrendered only 13 sacks in nine games this season. Draw your own conclusions.

The outcome of this game will be determined by how many battles the Browns win in the trenches and how often they make Mallett as uncomfortable as possible in the pocket at the outset.

Then mix it up by disguising coverages, baiting him into throwing ill-advised passes. Show him one coverage presnap, then switch to something entirely different at the snap. In other words, take full advantage of his inexperience.

If Mike Pettine chooses to be conservative on defense and give Mallett too much credit, the Texans have a shot at ending the Browns’ winning streak. If he opts for a more bellicose approach, that winning streak reaches four games. Look for much more of the latter than the former. Make it:

Browns 27, Texans 13


  1. Houston tends to move Watt all over the line. My guess is that he plays more than 75% of the snaps on the other side, matched up against Schwartz. Our old pal Romeo is the Houston DC and I don't think he's going to neutralize their biggest asset against the best left tackle in the league. Of course it's Romeo we're talking about, so you never know. Maybe he'll flip a coin every play!


  2. Hi DW,

    For a moment there, I thought you were taking leave of your senses with regard to Romeo. Then you recovered nicely.

    And you are correct about Watt. They move him around a lot. But with Clowney healthy and ready to go, I'd be surprised to see that much movement against the Browns.

    Watt, Clowney and Mercilus on that side of the ball is a problem if Romeo chooses to head in that direction. Overloading one side presents blocking problems for the OL. It's all about numbers.

    1. We'll definitely find out if any of our backs can pass block!

  3. Forget the backs. Try the offensive line.

    This was written, of course, after the game. What a sorry performance.