Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has played the New England Patriots twice in his career. He lost both times and has thrown the same amount of interceptions as touchdowns against New England (three touchdowns, three interceptions).
With all this being said, Watson has played at a really high level this year and may be able to change how he plays against the Patriots when he faces the reigning Super Bowl champions in Week 13.
Watson is coming off a win against the Indianapolis Colts, where he threw for 298 yards and had two touchdown strikes to DeAndre Hopkins (who will definitely come up later). While a win and a great stat line against a division rival is great, the question that bares asking - will this week be the week that Watson gets his first career win against the Patriots?
Let's find out by talking about Watson's strengths and weaknesses and then get into New England's gameplan against the 3rd-year QB.
What does he do well?
Watson, much like Dak Prescott, has profited from the deep ball and his receiver's big play ability this year. Naturally, when you have receivers like Hopkins and Will Fuller, there will be opportunities to chuck the ball deep. So, containing Hopkins and Fuller will be important. However, getting to the QB will be equally as important, as coverage will help limit the passing game, but pressuring Watson will be what limits the big plays downfield.
Other things that Watson does well were outlined in Tuesday's conference call between Houston media and Bill Belichick.
“Does a great job on the deep ball, has very good touch and accuracy, is a good decision maker, obviously very athletic kid that can do a lot,” Belichick said of Watson.
Belichick went even further into depth by saying “He’s a very good passer, can extend plays and make throws out of pocket, make throws in the pocket, and if he has to run the ball to convert a third down, he certainly is capable of doing that, and he’s a hard guy to tackle. I’ve been very impressed with his downfield passing ability and decision making and accuracy on third down.”
A lot of Watson's skills run paramount with Carson Wentz, except many can and should argue that Watson's skills are more refined than the Eagles' quarterback and he can do things on the field that Wentz simply cannot.
Much like I mentioned with Wentz and Prescott in previous weeks, Watson is also very skilled at picking apart zone coverage. In fact, Watson has thrown twelve of his 20 touchdown passes this season against zone coverage.
Needless to say, the best way to describe Watson - playmaker. He has a great arm, great eye, lots of athleticism, ability to extend plays, and is nearly impossible to take down. Watson is a living highlight reel and that is mostly why his name has come up so much in the MVP conversation.
Where are the holes in Watson's game?
First off, let's remember back to two weeks ago when the Texans played the Baltimore Ravens. Many thought that game was going to be a duel between two MVP-caliber quarterbacks. Instead, Lamar Jackson showed up and the Ravens defense killed Watson. How did Baltimore do that? By applying pressure.
Watson holds onto the ball for a long time. Although, that has been improving as he held onto the ball for an average of 3.01 seconds a year ago, compared to 2.79 this season.
Bundle that with a not so good offensive line and you have a quarterback who can be easily pressured. That is exactly what the Ravens did. They applied pressure and contained the edges against him and the shaky offensive line.
Another area that Watson seems to struggle in is against man coverage. His completion percentage drops by nine points in man (61.0) and his yards per attempt drops by two yards (7.1). He has less touchdowns and more interceptions in man coverage (eight touchdowns to four interceptions) than zone coverage (twelve touchdowns to three interceptions).
This is where New England has an advantage - their defense specializes in man coverage and they will certainly use a lot of it on Sunday night.
Lastly, another thing Watson can struggle with at times is decisiveness and sometimes being a little too hesitant. There have been instances where Watson has missed big opportunities because of spotty anticipation and a hesitancy to throw the ball.
How should the Patriots attack him?
The Patriots can play the game they are use to playing. They want to play man coverage with a strong rush off the edge to force Watson to pass in a confined space. Restrict the time he has to try and find an open guy and make him throw into tight windows.
Taking away the deep ball is necessary and doable with two deep safeties. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon must help pick up guys like Hopkins and Fuller downfield and need to be ready to defend some potential jump balls.
I talked a lot about how it would be hard to lock down all the Cowboys' receivers last week. This week will be even harder. On paper, Hopkins, Fuller, and Kenny Stills are a superior group to Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb that the Patriots saw last week. Thus, the coverage will need to be on par with last week's performance.
The matchups in coverage will likely be Stephon Gilmore against Hopkins, JC Jackson against Fuller, and Jonathan Jones against Stills.
If Jackson can use his speed and excellent deep ball coverage to his advantage against Fuller, and Gilmore can have half the performance he did last week against Cooper, the secondary will be in good shape.
Also, do not rule out a potential spy on Watson to try and contain some of his breakaway runs.
Overall, if the Patriots play anywhere near the way they have played over the last two weeks, they should do just fine against this Texans offense.