Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

28 Sep 2017

Film Room: Deshaun Watson

by Charles McDonald

It feels like the Houston Texans have been searching for a franchise quarterback since the Reagan administration. Outside of a small stretch in the mid-2000s when Kyle Shanahan was pulling the strings for Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, the quarterback play in Houston has largely been incompetent. They have had a revolving door at quarterback since general manager Rick Smith lured Bill O'Brien away from Penn State as head coach in 2014, but they might have found "their guy" in Deshaun Watson, their first-round pick in the 2017 draft.

Watson's short time with the Texans hasn't always been pretty. He came out firing on all cylinders in their preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, but stumbled in the remaining preseason games. His first start against the Bengals in Week 2 was a rollercoaster. He scored the only touchdown of the game on a 49-yard scramble, but struggled throwing the ball for the majority of that game. His second start against the New England Patriots was a completely different story.

In the early portion of the season, the Patriots pass defense has left a lot to be desired. They currently rank 31st in pass defense DVOA through three weeks, but Bill Belichick's defense has been a buzzsaw that devours rookie quarterbacks throughout his tenure as the Patriots' head coach. Watson is one of the few rookie quarterbacks to go on the road and take it to Belichick's defense.

Watson has a bit of Brett Favre to his game. Even though he doesn't have a howitzer for a right arm like Favre did, he still has no qualms about taking risks on the football field. If there was a play to encapsulate Watson's fearlessness on the field, look no further than his chaotic 35-yard completion to tight end Ryan Griffin.

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What sets Deshaun Watson apart from some rookie quarterbacks is his ability to work out of empty formations. Empty formations leave the quarterback in the backfield by himself, typically with five-man protection schemes. The Texans' Swiss cheese offensive line can make running empty a bit problematic, but Watson's mobility bailed out the right guard on this play.

Houston is running a post route with No. 1 and an out route with No. 2 against New England's Cover-3.

Just based on the coverage responsibility of the flat defender, Griffin shouldn't even be an option on this play. However, Patrick Chung gets caught with his eyes in the backfield and completely misses Griffin running right past his face. Griffin is by his lonesome by the sideline.

While Griffin is standing wide open on the sideline, Watson is under fire in the pocket looking for an option down the field. Somehow, he spots Griffin out of the corner of his eye and launches it literally all the way across the field with pinpoint accuracy into Griffin's chest, giving him the ability to gain yards after the catch. Should Watson have thrown this ball? Absolutely not. This is a dangerous, reckless throw that no coach would endorse attempting, but this is one of those occasions where you can live with a tremendous result from a faulty process. This is the gunslinger mentality that Watson lives with, and dies with from time to time.

When he has the options, Watson will test the intermediate and deep portions of the field. His first start against the Bengals featured an extremely conservative passing attack. Against New England, O'Brien opened up the playbook and Watson took advantage of the longer leash from his coach. Even though he's not afraid to test defenses, he showed that the game still moves a bit too fast for him at times when Stephon Gilmore intercepted him on a late throw.

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The last play was an example of faulty process with a good result. This play is an example of the opposite. After the play-action look on the split zone, Deandre Hopkins has one-on-one coverage against Gilmore on a nine route. This is a situation quarterbacks dream of: their best target in man coverage, deep down the field, with no real threat from the free safety lurking in the middle of the field. From a schematic point of view, this ball should (and will) be thrown every single time.

All Watson has to do is catch the snap, set his feet, and throw a 50/50 ball to one of the best jump-ball receivers in the game. For some reason, he drifts to his left after catching the snap and walks himself into pressure coming from the defensive end rushing the left tackle.

This type of pocket movement was a point that Watson's detractors held against him, and it definitely reared its ugly head here. All he needs to do is stand tall in the pocket and deliver the throw. The play-action sets up the pocket nicely. There is no reason to make this throw harder than it needs to be.

When Watson did stand in the pocket and deliver throws, he displayed some terrific accuracy in the red zone.

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Houston is running mirrored corner routes from a trips set with the tight end, Griffin, playing tight to the formation. Devin McCourty has man coverage on Griffin and he's playing with outside leverage, a perfect design to play the corner route.

Once again, Watson has one-on-one coverage on his intended receiver. There's literally only one spot that this ball can be thrown for a completion since McCourty has outside leverage on Griffin. If Watson throws this ball outside of Griffin, or on the intended track of the corner route, McCourty has an easy interception in the end zone that would kill the Texans drive.

Watson delivers this throw on a rope for a touchdown, all while getting crushed by Trey Flowers. He throws it in the perfect spot for Griffin to flip his hips, catch the ball, and toe-tap in bounds for a touchdown. This is a big-time throw that the Texans hope becomes more routine, considering the assets that they gave up to acquire Watson in the draft.

That wasn't the only touchdown throw that Watson made that had a high degree of difficulty.

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Now, throwing a seam route versus Cover-3 is extremely hard to do, especially with how easily New England transitions from zone coverage to man coverage during the play. The slot defender over Bruce Ellington is going to match him up the field. On the other side of the field, Hopkins is going to run a fade route towards the end zone. This puts the free safety playing single high in a bind: he needs to be in a position to play both routes without being out of position to play either vertical route.

As soon as Ellington gets a step on his man, Watson fires a laser down the middle of the field. He throws the ball in the perfect spot for Ellington to make a play on the ball and protect himself from the free safety rotating over the top. Look at the placement on this throw. It may look inaccurate because Ellington has to reach a bit back, but it's the only place that the ball could be thrown in order to catch the ball without getting knocked out into next week.

Ellington secures the catch and lands in the end zone for six. This is a difficult throw that a lot of quarterbacks fail to make. Seam route versus Cover-3 with the safety bearing down over the top? That's a veteran move.

We're only in the early stages of Deshaun Watson's career, but it should be noted that he has improved every time he has stepped on the field through the first three weeks of the season. Some people might say that his day only came because the Texans were playing a poor pass defense, but good players routinely take advantage of inferior matchups on the football field. The Texans have to be very, very pleased with the early progress their young quarterback has made so far. Watson looks like he has the chance to be a beacon of hope in a dungeon of despair for Houston. He had better be, because this might be Bill O'Brien and Rick Smith's last chance to take a swing at a quarterback.

Posted by: Charles McDonald on 28 Sep 2017

7 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2017, 1:07pm by princemoga

Comments

1
by PaddyPat :: Thu, 09/28/2017 - 5:42pm

Nicely written and great use of the diagrams. Watson was exciting to watch this week, and one just hopes that the coaching is sufficiently strong to help him to continue to grow and develop.

2
by PirateFreedom :: Thu, 09/28/2017 - 6:48pm

I was impressed by the way Watson scrambled around and threw rather than just always take off running when things broke down and I was genuinely worried when the Pats left 27 seconds on the clock after scoring the go ahead touch down.

3
by Noah Arkadia :: Sat, 09/30/2017 - 12:17pm

Did you notice, on the first gif, how the two defenders closest to the receiver react to the wrong receiver when the ball is thrown? Both take several steps towards the underneath receiver while the ball is in the air before realizing he's not the target. If they had reacted correctly, they could easily have broken up the pass or even picked it off.

4
by ramirez :: Sat, 09/30/2017 - 1:31pm

Is Cian Fahey no longer writing for this site?

5
by Vincent Verhei :: Sat, 09/30/2017 - 4:50pm

Our good buddy Cian has moved on to doing a podcast for ESPN. He also still does some writing. Your best bet for keeping track of what he's up to is to follow him on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/Cianaf

6
by Mr Shush :: Sun, 10/01/2017 - 6:49pm

"We're only in the early stages of Deshaun Watson's career, but it should be noted that he has improved every time he has stepped on the field through the first three weeks of the season."

I think we can make that four. If it goes to five next week, that should be an interesting game...