This time last year, Deshaun Watson was about to become what Patrick Mahomes is today. Houston’s then-new franchise QB posted a record 19 touchdowns in his first seven games, electrifying Football America with his mobility and aggressive downfield throwing. But in early November, Watson became what Jimmy Garoppolo now is: a franchise QB with a torn ACL. Now, Watson is trying to become what Carson Wentz is today: a franchise quarterback returning from an ACL injury whose team is winning.
Watson’s Texans are one of three winless teams in the NFL right now. The crowd that was gaga over him a year ago is now saying something different: What’s wrong?
The short answer? Nothing—or nothing that wasn’t previously wrong. Watson has looked swift on the run—an obvious concern following an ACL tear. He might not have the same rifle arm as Mahomes, but he delivers a better ball than his throwing motion and release suggest. Watson can make just about any throw, and he’s willing to attempt just about any. Since receiver Will Fuller returned in Week 2 after suffering a hamstring injury in the preseason, Watson has shown the same downfield aggression that impressed Texans coaches so much a year ago.
And the 23-year-old still has plenty to improve. Though far more willing to play from the pocket than most mobile QBs, he needs to become mechanically tighter and more disciplined. He tends to cover too much ground when moving within the pocket, and he can be slow to move past reads that aren’t open. None of this is unusual for a young quarterback, and Watson is further along and more talented than most.
The Texans’ greater problems reside in Watson’s surroundings. Behind Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins, Houston’s receiving corps are very thin, and even more alarming, the offensive tackles are slow and callow. Third-round rookie Martinas Rankin has good balance but heavy feet, making him vulnerable to agile pass rush moves. Right tackle Julie’n Davenport, who had three false starts and a costly holding foul last Sunday against the Giants, tends to play with loose, reactive hands, which compromises his power. Neither player is very experienced.
Houston has amended its scheme to help the tackles and give receivers more time to get open. This began last season, when the Texans—playing with iffy tackles Chris Clark and Breno Giacomini—kept a sixth player in to help pass-block on 18.3% of Watson’s snaps. The team kept a seventh player in 14.9% of the time, and on 23.7% of the snaps, it had a player chip-block an edge rusher before releasing into his route.
Head coach Bill O’Brien, who has one of football’s most manifold offensive minds, prefers to get all five eligible receivers out in routes. Eschewing this for so many “protection-first” plays probably felt like a being a newly diagnosed Celiac eating gluten-free pasta. It’s unappetizing, if not outright disgusting, but necessary. Trying to find a happy-medium, the Texans have scaled back from protection first just a bit this year, with the number of snaps involving six pass-blockers drpping to 12.5% and seven blockers dropping to 7.4%. But chip-blocks are up to 36.8%, showing that O’Brien—wisely—is not putting his offensive tackles on an island.
For comparison, the Chiefs have used six or seven blockers on a combined 23.2% of Mahomes’s dropbacks. Interestingly they’ve also employed a lot of misdirection concepts, going play-action on 31.3% of Mahomes’s snaps and employing presnap motion 18.8% of the time. O’Brien and his staff masterfully built these misdirection tactics for Watson on the fly last season, but this year, the Texans have used presnap motion on just 5.1% of snaps—a decrease from 16.2% last year— and play-action snaps are down from 38.6% to 27.9%. Most telling, snaps with designed pocket movement, which really suits Watson, are down from 11.6% to 3.7%.
It’s hard to understand why the Texans are drifting away from their tactics specifically tailored for Watson. (O'Brien, understandably, declined to elaborate when I asked.) The good news is there’s hope for the Texans turning things around overall, even if in a more traditional dropback offense. Watson’s receiving corps, while thin, is strong at the top. The run game is average, but O’Brien always commits to maximizing it. On defense, J.J. Watt looks like his old self, and there’s a litany of upper-shelf veterans around him. This team is two games back in a so-so AFC South. No need to panic just yet.
Few coaches are better than Kyle Shanahan at building pass plays off their team’s running game. That’s what makes San Francisco’s offense go. Capitalizing on that requires a quarterback who can read defenses and take what’s there—a run-around playmaker with a strong arm and fast wheels would not do the 49ers much good. They need someone with enough experience in the system to grasp its nuances, which Shanahan iterated this when asked about possibly signing Colin Kaepernick. “I made that decision [to not pursue him] because of the style of offense we wanted to go with,” he said. Most likely, the best solution is to stay in-house and ride C.J. Beathard. He’s a limited passer, but he’s at least been in Shanahan’s program two years.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE PATRIOTS
In a few weeks Julian Edelman will be in the slot and Josh Gordon out wide, giving this offense an entirely different identity. Not only are those men weapons for Tom Brady, but their presence more clearly defines the roles of other receivers. Chris Hogan can go back to being a vertical route runner. Cordarrelle Patterson can be a gadget guy. Phillip Dorsett, a speed specialist. And the more threatening the wideouts are, the more advantageous New England’s mismatch-makers, Rob Gronkowski and James White, become.
WHY FITZPATRICK OVER WINSTON
Jameis Winston has the makeup to still be a quality starter, but one problem is he struggles with his deep ball. He can make strong deep-intermediate throws like you get with dig routes and post or corner routes, but on pure vertical stretches, his accuracy and timing waver. The deep ball has been a huge part of Fitzpatrick's 2018 success.
NON-FOOTBALL ITEM ON MY MIND
We’re in baseball’s “locker-room champagne celebration” time of year, when many of the teams that clinch a division title or lock up a spot in the playoffs put on goggles, cover the lockers and pop corks as if they’ve won the World Series title already. I’ve never understood why major leaguers, especially in a sport that’s so prideful of its stoicism, go crazy for these accomplishments. Champagne for clinching a division I sort of get—I understand baseball has a uniquely long regular season—but it feels excessive to celebrate like that for just reaching the playoffs.
What befuddles me are the champagne celebrations for winning a wild-card or divisional series. Could you imagine Tom Brady beating the Chiefs on a Saturday night divisional playoff game and shooting a champagne cork? Or LeBron James getting past the Pacers on May 1 and lighting a cigar?
Hardcore baseball fans: I would love an explanation for why the tradition of over-the-top celebrating makes sense. I’m eager to learn and am genuinely asking, so please, no need for hostility. I appreciate playoff baseball; I just don’t get the celebrating. Email me at AndyBenoitNFL@gmail.com, and I’ll publish any thoughtful, logical explanations here next week.
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