At the beginning of October, Deshaun Watson’s current role in the Texans’ offense seemed to be nearing a tipping point.
In an overtime victory over the Dallas Cowboys, he was hit 10 times in the pocket, ran the ball an additional 10 times and held on to the ball for an average of 3.05 seconds per snap — the third-longest time of any quarterback that week. Another grimacing performance followed in a win over the Bills, where Watson was hit a season-high 15 times. Miraculously, this turbulent stretch didn’t irrevocably damage the rib and lung issues that put him on a bus to the Jaguars game so as not to aggravate the ailments.
But in the weeks since, and in Monday night’s convincing 34-17 win over the division rival Titans at home, he has been gliding through games. In the weeks since the 15-hit Bills game, Watson has been touched just 14 total times in the pocket, with his designed rushes and out-of-pocket scrambles also decreasing. On Monday, he was hit a total of nine times, though that’s combining the backfield hits (6) with the shots he took by declining to slide on a quarterback sneak.
By an unofficial timer, he was holding on to the ball, for 2.76 seconds per snap against the Titans, which would put him in the middle of the pack for NFL starters in Week 12.
So what changed?
Similar epiphanies have been reached by simply getting rid of the ball faster, but that’s not Watson and that’s not the Texans’ offense. Because so many of their plays rely on run action, Watson’s snap to throw time is always going to be among the highest in the NFL. By my watch, Monday’s was a season-low, though in four games this season he has had either the highest, or second-highest snap to throw time in the NFL.
In Houston, a lot of that progress is thanks to Lamar Miller, who ran for 162 yards and a touchdown (including a 97-yard run). He’s averaging 100.4 yards per game since Week 7 (54.2 yards over the first five weeks) and is taking the temptation away from Bill O’Brien to utilize Watson as a designed runner in order to generate favorable coverages. Most of Watson’s runs during this stretch have amounted to sneaks, or, as we saw on the long touchdown run, something so advantageous that the risk of taking a hit is low (he wasn’t touched, and had two lead blockers, one with an easy-to-execute back block).
Some, though, is Watson. While it’s easy to dismiss the anecdotal, he looks more comfortable. He threw just four incompletions. He peppered the ball around, with DeAndre Hopkins getting just one more target (6) than the next-highest wide receiver. He’s nearing the type of anticipatory relationship with Demaryius Thomas that will make him an effective weapon against the single-coverage he saw on Monday, and is floating dimes to Hopkins on the type of routes that can narrowly knife between the bracket coverage he regularly sees.
That’s growth, but it’s also the product of (relative) health. Comfort.
After the game, O’Brien said he still wanted more consistency out of a team that has won eight straight games. They’ll be hoping for the same out of a coach who recognized that his quarterback was in distress a few weeks ago and did something about it.