The Houston Texans made it a point of focus to improve their offensive line this past offseason. Deshaun Watson is a star quarterback who can make any throw, but what he needs is some assurance that he’s not going to be annihilated by a nasty defensive lineman on every single play. In that regard, the results through the first month were pretty poor.
Watson entered Week 5 having been sacked 18 times, third-most in the league behind Kyler Murray (20) and Andy Dalton (19). His offensive line gave up six sacks in Week 1 to the Saints and six sacks in Week 4 to the Panthers, both losses. Sunday was a different story, as the line did not allow any sacks and just one hit against the Atlanta Falcons. Watson looked like the quarterback he’s meant to be, with a perfect passer rating, a career-high 436 yards, and five touchdowns in the 53-32 win.
I know what you’re thinking: it’s the Falcons! This is true — the Falcons are not a great team and the defense had just five sacks coming into Week 5. But they did allow us to see what Watson looks like with more time and most importantly, more confidence, to throw. As it turns out, when you’re not worried about getting hit all the time, everything about your game looks good.
Here’s what worked and why for Watson and the Houston offense.
The lack of pressure allowed Watson to get comfortable
Watching Watson play, it’s clear that he likes to get the ball out quickly, usually off a play-action if possible. Running isn’t his go-to move, but he can do it, and that aids the play-action. Still, when it comes to dropping back and passing, he’s relatively fast going through his progressions. Perhaps that’s out of necessity given his line’s shaky play since he entered the NFL, but his best throws are usually quick ones.
Let’s start with every quarterback’s favorite setup: a free play when the defense was clearly offsides.
That’s a bullet, delivered by Watson over two underneath defenders right into the hands of Keke Coutee, who took it 51 yards for his longest career reception. No fear, no worries about being hit by a stalled pass rush. Just a very sure throw and a huge conversion to help put the Texans in position to take the lead in the third quarter.
Watson is used to throwing the ball while under pressure. Sometimes they’re great throws and sometimes — like several in Week 4 against the Panthers — they’re not. But when he’s slinging it with poise, the pressure is a lot less effective. Observe:
This wasn’t a great play by the right side of Houston’s offensive line, but Watson dropped back, faked the handoff, and delivered a strike to the hole in the zone where Will Fuller V was waiting. That one went for 32 yards and was one of Watson’s better throws on the day.
You’ll notice a theme developing here: these throws were from the third quarter. Watson had a lead, hadn’t been sacked, and had more than a half of football to get a feel for the Falcons’ defense. He figured out what was working and started to have faith in his line, which opened the door for potentially risky throws.
Here’s Watson throwing a tough pass right over the middle into the hands of DeAndre Hopkins, his No. 1 receiver. Hopkins had five Falcons players in his vicinity, and if Watson had accidentally put any extra air on the ball, it could have turned bad pretty quickly. Instead, it was another big gain in a third quarter that was full of them.
Confidence is key. Without the threat of being hit constantly, Watson trusted his playmakers to stand out, like this beauty of a touchdown to tight end Darren Fells.
There was a little pressure on that play, but it didn’t hamper Watson much — not after nearly a complete game of no real heat from Atlanta. Watson did what good quarterbacks are supposed to do in the fourth quarter: he buried the Falcons with a dart to Fells that was as jaw-dropping a catch as it was a throw.
Given time to throw, Watson is even deadlier
Watson’s a quick-release guy, but what happens when he has all day to throw the ball? Well, things don’t go so well for his opponents, that’s what.
There isn’t a lot to say about the play above other than the basics: Watson had plenty of time, his offensive line blocked well, and the Falcons were playing conservatively with a small lead. Watson took his time and delivered an absolute strike to Fuller for a 33-yard touchdown.
Fuller was impressive as anybody on Sunday, too. He caught 14 of the 16 passes thrown his way for 217 yards and three touchdowns. On his third touchdown to Fuller, Watson had enough time to bounce around about seven times before uncorking this beauty:
The Falcons sold out on coverage on this play because it was an empty backfield on a third down. Atlanta left two linebackers protecting the sticks, primarily from Watson scrambling (he did finish the game with four keepers for 47 rushing yards). Instead, Watson buried the Falcons by slinging another massive touchdown to Fuller with under two minutes to go. Fuller wasn’t open the whole time — it took a bit for him to get the separation he needed, and Watson was patient enough to let him get it.
Watson is a dynamic player, even in desperate situations with defenders are breathing down his neck. But he’s on a completely different level when the offensive line can keep him clean, and the Texans will win more games when Watson isn’t constantly under fire.
Maybe a dominant game against the lagging Falcons defense was what they needed to get the juices flowing. It was certainly what Watson needed. The line was instrumental in both him and the entire offense bouncing back from their worst game of the year to putting together their best. Now their next challenge is to see if they can do it against some much better teams.