HOUSTON – The focus was on Deshaun Watson as the Browns played Sunday at the Houston Texans. The quarterback was back off his 11-game suspension and playing against his former team.
It was the Browns' defense and special teams, though, that was the secret to their second consecutive win, a 27-14 victory over the Texans.
Watson, playing for the first time since he was with the Texans on Jan. 3, 2021, finished 12-of-22 passing for 131 yards and a 53.4 rating. He threw an interception in the end zone as well.
Watson's struggles playing for the first time in 700 days left the Browns with 304 net yards. Of those, 174 came on the ground.
Deshaun Watson:Browns QB returns to Houston to loud in-game boos vs. Texans
What salvaged the day for Cleveland was its ability to get its own hands on Houston turnovers. It also, finally, broke out in the punt return game.
The Browns came up with four takeaways on the day, two of which they took back for touchdowns. They also got a Donovan Peoples-Jones punt return for a score to give them the lead.
That allowed them to win their second consecutive game and improve to 5-7 heading into a critical AFC North back-to-back stretch starting next Sunday in Cincinnati.
John Johnson III finally gets the Browns a takeaway
The Browns went the entire month of November without taking the ball away from an opponent. They changed that on the first play of December, although it took some help from replay review.
Texans quarterback Kyle Allen threw a deep out to tight end Teagan Quitoriano on the first play of the game. Quitoriano made a diving attempt for the ball, coming down with it, but it then ricocheted up into the air and into John Johnson III's hand,
Johnson managed to chop both of his feet inbounds after making the interception, which was originally ruled as an incomplete pass before being overturned on a challenge by coach Kevin Stefanski. It was the first takeaway for the Browns since they had a pair − an interception and a fumble recovery −in their Oct. 31 win over Cincinnati.
The Browns, though, could do nothing with the takeaway, going three-and-out.
Browns give it away, Texans turn it into points
The Browns' first nice gain of the day came on their second play of their second drive. The problem was that that nice gain − a 14-yard pass from Watson to Anthony Schwartz − turned into a 15-yard fumble return by Houston's Desmond King II after Schwartz coughed the ball up.
King's return put the Texans at the Browns 38. While they would get to the Cleveland 16, penalties would leave with with a 44-yard Ka'imi Fairbairn field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Deshaun Watson's best drive of first half ends with bad interception
Watson's best drive of the first half came on his third one. The problem was, that drive also ended with a terrible interception in the end zone that prevented the Browns from getting points.
The Browns marched from their own 16 to the Texans 11 in eight plays. After an early incompletion, he hit his next three passes for a combined 45 yards, including a 27-yarder to Peoples-Jones to the Houston 11.
The next play, though, Watson tried to throw the ball to Amari Cooper running across the back of the end zone. The problem was that Houston's Jalen Pitre was standing in the front of the end zone and came up with the easy interception.
Grant Delpit delivers a fourth-and-goal hit to help Browns
Houston almost made the Browns pay for each of their first two turnovers. It turned Pitre's pick into a fourth-and-goal play at the 1.
The Texans ran fullback Troy Hairston out into the left flats, where Kyle Allen delivered him the ball. Safety Grant Delpit, though, delivered the hit at just the right time, to break up the pass and give the Browns the ball.
Hairston was shaken up on the play and had to go to the locker room.
Texans upstage Browns defensive stand with a safety
The good vibes from the Browns' stand on defense lasted two plays. The Texans defense used the bad field position given to the Browns offense to add to their lead.
On second-and-10 from the 1, Houston's defensive line pushed their Cleveland offensive counterparts back enough to swarm Nick Chubb. Houston's Roy Lopez brought him down in the end zone for a safety and a 5-0 Texans lead with 11:53 remaining.
Donovan Peoples-Jones provides the Browns with special-teams boost
Travis Benjamin may have wondered why was trending on Twitter Sunday afternoon. That's because Peoples-Jones removed him as the answer to the question, "Who was the last Browns player to return a punt for a score?"
Benjamin, who did it on Sept. 20, 2015, against the Tennessee Titans, had been the answer. That was until Peoples-Jones, after a brief stumble, took a punt 76 yards to the end zone for a 7-5 Browns lead with 3:41 remaining in the second quarter.
For Peoples-Jones, it merely built upon what he had done a week earlier against Tampa Bay returning punts. He average 15 yards on five returns against the Buccaneers.
Denzel Ward gets his second scoop-and-score
You didn't have to look deep into the archives to find the last time the Browns returned a fumble for a touchdown. It happened on Sept. 18, when Denzel Ward picked up a last-play lateral by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the end zone for a score.
Ward was once again perfectly positioned to pick up a loose ball and run it back early in the third quarter. This time, after Allen coughed up the ball deep in Houston territory, the Browns' Pro Bowl cornerback scooped it up at the Texans 4 and ran it in for a 14-5 lead with 10:10 remaining in the third quarter.
What Ward does become the answer to is, "What Browns player becomes the first to have two fumble returns for touchdowns in a season?"
Cade York gets back on track with two field goals
The last time Cade York tried a field goal, it was a badly-missed 39-yard try in the first half against Tampa Bay. Back in his home state on Sunday, York got a couple of tries to get back on the right track.
That's exactly what York did in the second half against Houston. The native of the Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas, hit a 43-yarder early in the fourth quarter to make it 17-8 Browns.
York would add a 42-yarder with 4:03 remaining to make it 27-8 Cleveland.
Tony Fields II has himself a break-through fourth quarter
Tony Fields II has spent most of his time on special teams. Injuries this season have, however, forced the second-year linebacker into a more pronounced defensive role.
Fields was rewarded with a couple of big plays to help blow Sunday's game open. One was on defense, the other on special teams.
The first came with 9:30 remaining in the game. As Allen was dropping back to try a pass under pressure, it was deflected off of defensive end Chase Winovich's arm and into the air.
Fields was perfectly positioned to come down with the ball. He returned it untouched 16 yards for a touchdown, the Browns' second defensive score of the day, and a 24-8 lead.
The next time the Browns got the ball, they were forced to punt. As King was returning it for Houston, he had the ball knocked free and Fields fell on it for the fourth takeaway of the game for the Browns defense.
Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @ceasterlingABJ
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Browns beat Texans in Deshaun Watson’s NFL return