HOUSTON -- After the Houston Texans' defense dominated 2018 No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield in the first half Sunday and shut out the Cleveland Browns before halftime of their 29-13 victory, Bill O'Brien acknowledged the tough situation the rookie was in.
"I think it's hard to play against our defense as a rookie quarterback," O'Brien said.
The Texans' coach could have stopped after saying, "I think it's hard to play against our defense." In a time when NFL offenses have been explosive and scoring is up, Houston has continued to rely on its defense during its nine-game winning streak.
In Houston's past eight games, the unit has allowed an average of 15.9 points per game. The only team to score more than 23 points on Houston (9-3) this season is the Indianapolis Colts in Week 4, but the Texans still won that game in overtime.
In the Texans' first three games, opposing quarterbacks were completing 73 percent of their passes and averaging 8.5 yards per attempt with a Total QBR of 80, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. During the past nine games, quarterbacks are completing 63 percent and averaging 7.2 yards per attempt with a QBR of 47. The secondary was also allowing seven touchdowns for every interception in the first three games. In the past nine, the secondary is allowing just 1.2 touchdowns per every interception.
And Sunday, the Texans shut out the Browns in the first half, the third time they have done that this season.
The defense has found new ways to make a difference in games all season. Houston has had five- and six-sack games during the winning streak, but on Sunday, the unit had success by winning the turnover battle.
"We always want to win the turnover margin, because if you win that turnover margin, the percentage of you winning the game will go up dramatically," defensive back Johnathan Joseph said. "We're just trying to capitalize."
Houston did just that, forcing four turnovers: interceptions by Zach Cunningham, Joseph and Andre Hal and a forced fumble by rookie safety Justin Reid. Cunningham returned his interception 38 yards for a touchdown to put the Texans up 17-0. O'Brien told his team going into the game that Cleveland was tied for No. 1 in the league in the takeaway-giveaway column, and if the team "didn't perform well in that category, we were going to have a long day."
All three interceptions came before halftime, which is tied for the most in the first half of a game in franchise history.
This is the defense the Texans were hoping for at the start of the season with the return of defensive end J.J. Watt, who broke his leg last October, and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who missed most of the offseason and training camp while rehabbing a knee injury. Houston also addressed its secondary in the offseason, adding safety Tyrann Mathieu and drafting Reid in the third round.
Two seasons ago, under defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, the Texans had the top-ranked defense. In 2017, with Crennel promoted to assistant head coach and now-Titans head coach Mike Vrabel named defensive coordinator, the Texans finished the season ranked 20th in yards allowed per game. With Crennel back to calling plays for the defense, the unit has thrived, especially during this winning streak.
When the Texans were 0-3, Mathieu was insistent the defense -- and team -- was just a few plays away from turning the season around. Since then, Mathieu said, "We've been making those plays, and we've been taking care of the football, and we've been trying to take it away."
What has made the defense better during this winning streak? Mathieu said he thinks opposing teams come in with an emphasis on getting the ball out quickly to not let the strong defensive front seven be the difference-maker in the game. And that has helped the secondary.
"Teams try to take shots on us, but I don't think they realize how good we are on the back end," Mathieu said. "Maybe they're still watching last year's film. I don't know. But we're going to keep playing, we're going to keep rolling.
"We've got a tough challenge next week with [Colts quarterback Andrew] Luck."