CLEVELAND — Once he finished ransacking Cleveland’s offense, J.J. Watt met Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer near midfield and gave him a hug.
They became close Sunday. Too close for Hoyer.
Watt nearly beat Cleveland himself, catching a 2-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Mallett, dominating on defense and leading the Houston Texans to a 23-7 win over the Browns on Sunday.
Houston’s indomitable No. 99 was everywhere. Along with scoring his fourth TD this season, he recorded a strip sack, made five tackles — three for a loss — recovered a fumble and hurried Hoyer into several bad throws. Watt was unstoppable, providing more proof he’s the NFL’s best defensive player.
“It was a productive day,” he said, nonchalantly.
Browns coach Mike Pettine couldn’t say enough about Watt.
“He’s a special player,” he said. “You run to him. You run away from him. You try to do different things. He’s an excellent player.”
Mallett threw a pair of TD passes and finished with 211 yards in his first career start. The four-year veteran was promoted during the bye week after the Texans (5-5) benched Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Mallett delivered a needed spark.
So did rookie running back Alfred Blue, a former LSU standout. He filled in for injured star Arian Foster (groin) and gained 156 yards on a franchise-record 36 carries. Blue’s 156 yards tied the rookie franchise record set previously by Steve Slaton (2008).
“It feels good,” said Mallett, a former third-round pick in 2011 who spent three seasons backing up Tom Brady in New England. “It made the four years worth it.”
The Browns (6-4) won’t spend a second straight week atop the AFC North. They lost for just the second time in seven games, and Watt is the main reason why.
The 6-foot-5, 290-pounder scored Houston’s first TD, grabbing Mallett’s first career scoring pass for his fourth TD in 2014. He’s the first defensive lineman to score four times in a season since 1948. He wasn’t perfect, getting called for two roughing-the-punter penalties, but Watt more than made up for his mistakes by wreaking havoc along Cleveland’s offensive front.
Watt wasn’t aware that it’s been 66 years since a defensive lineman scored four TDs.
“That’s pretty cool,” he said. “That’s a long time ago. There’s a lot of season left, so hopefully that’s not the end of it.”
Randy Bullock kicked field goals of 46, 37 and 50 yards for the Texans.
Mallett finished 20 of 30 and outdueled Hoyer in a battle of former Brady backups.
Hoyer spent the afternoon ducking and dodging Houston’s relentless defensive front led by Watt. Linebacker Brian Cushing delivered a monstrous hit in the fourth quarter on Hoyer, who struggled to get up, dropped to his knees and barely composed himself as backup Johnny Manziel scrambled for his helmet.
“It’s disappointing,” said Hoyer, who completed just 20 of 50 passes with a TD. “We had a great opportunity and we let it slip through our hands. We’re not there yet.”
Browns running back Ben Tate had just two carries for minus-9 yards against his former team.
As expected, Watt made his presence felt. The surprising part was that it was on both sides of the ball.
In the first quarter, Mallett hooked up with DeAndre Hopkins on a 41-yard completion — the longest play on an 89-yard drive — to move the ball to the Cleveland 2.
On first-and-goal, Watt lined up as Houston’s left tight end before shifting to wide receiver. Mallett then lofted the ball to the agile Watt, who caught it over rookie linebacker Chris Kirksey and was able to get his knee down inbounds for the score.
“I was telling the offensive linemen, there’s nothing better than scoring a touchdown and the whole offense runs over to congratulate you,” Watt said. “It’s such a cool feeling. I really, really enjoyed today. It was a blast.”
Mallett’s 20-yard TD pass to tight end Garrett Graham gave the Texans a 14-7 lead and capped a first half in which Watt had an impact on offense, defense and special teams.
After he caught his second TD pass this season, Watt sacked and knocked the ball away from Hoyer and later recovered a fumble caused by Cushing that led to Houston’s go-ahead score.
With the Browns driving late in the second quarter, Cushing, who missed the previous two games with a knee injury, poked the ball away from Cleveland rookie running back Isaiah Crowell. Watt, who had been pacing the sideline after his second roughing penalty, pounced on the fumble.
“99’s the man,” safety D.J. Swearinger said.