Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Deshaun Watson

Guest column by Karan Gill

Deshaun Watson's mid-season ACL tear robbed us of a proper finish to his exhilarating rookie year. Watson, whose highlights included backfield scrambles and deep passes to his receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, was ranked first in ESPN's total QBR and seventh in passing DVOA.

Watson completed 41.5 percent of his deep passes (those that traveled 16 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage) last year, with an NFL passer rating of 88.0. The league averages were 39.0 percent and 79.3. Watson threw 53 deep balls in only six starts. His teammate Tom Savage threw 49 in seven starts, completing 34.7 percent of them with a passer rating of 69.3.

It's hard to believe now, but Savage was actually Houston's starter in Week 1. At halftime of their season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien benched his starter and went with the rookie. The offensive scheme from then on needed to be altered to cater to Watson's strengths.

In his Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue, former Football Outsiders writer Cian Fahey stated that "O'Brien's offense has been built on straight dropbacks that asked the quarterback to mitigate pressure in the pocket and diagnose the coverage based on isolated routes that released vertically downfield for intermediate and deep throws. Watson would have been a disaster in that offense."

The Clemson alum's numbers indicate how good he would become, but it was an adjustment for O'Brien to discover what worked.

Examining Watson's deep plays, we see that he progressed as the scheme adjusted to his style, but there is still improvement to be made in many facets of his game

Week 3: Patriots

Against the New England Patriots in Week 3, O'Brien was still experimenting on downfield strategies. He was running plays out of single-back formations more frequently than he would in future games. He was also using his tight ends as deep targets, something that disrupted Watson's timing.

Here, we see Watson overthrowing tight end Stephen Anderson on a post pattern that would have led to a touchdown:

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Earlier in the game, Watson overthrew Ryan Griffin on a fly route. Griffin was pretty well-covered but Watson didn't give him a shot at boxing out the much smaller Patrick Chung to bring in the ball.

In the first quarter, Watson did hit Bruce Ellington deep in the end zone. Ellington made a spectacular play that bailed out Watson's poor throw. This is a reoccurring sight on Watson's deep passes.

Week 4: Titans

O'Brien was still experimenting and adjusting his offensive scheme the following week against the Tennessee Titans. The Texans were running similar routes in different formations, but were in shotgun much more often.

One of Watson's strengths was putting the ball where only his receiver could make a play. He was rarely ever underthrowing his wideouts. Although the play below led to an incompletion, it paid off later in the game.

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Before the snap, Watson recognizes the Titans defense is in man coverage. The reverse by Ellington forces cornerback Ryan Logan to move to the other side of the field, isolating Fuller. Titans safety Curtis Riley retreats backwards, reading the quarterback's drop.

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Ellington motions to the left side of the field and is used as a decoy on this play. After the snap, Watson holds to the left long enough for Fuller to beat his man. When Watson finally turns towards Fuller, he doesn't set his feet before letting the ball go. Although Watson successfully moved the safety out of the play with his eyes, he wasn't able to make an accurate pass.

Later in the second quarter, just seven minutes following the previous play, Houston went back to Fuller on a post route. Fuller's speed allowed him to get open downfield. Luckily, if a receiver gets open and the defensive back panics, the receiver can draw a pass interference call, like Fuller did here. The pass wasn't the most accurate, but Fuller was obviously a much better downfield threat than the Texans tight ends.

Week 5: Chiefs

The Texans were trailing early against the Chiefs, allowing Watson to let loose and take bigger risks. The offense made use of the shotgun doubles flex wing formation, and they continued to run it in future games. This formation positions the tight end between the right tackle and the right guard. If the blocking is assigned correctly by the quarterback, it allows Watson to have more time in the backfield.

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In the third quarter, Ellington, positioned out of the slot, runs a fly route. Watson moves the safety, Ron Parker, towards the sideline to maintain coverage on Hopkins. This opens up Ellington, who draws the flag in one-on-one coverage.

For every play showcasing Watson's ability to move safeties, however, there is a play like the one below.

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Here, Watson just locks his eyes on Hopkins, who finds a hole in the zone coverage deep down the middle of the field. Watson puts the ball in the air and Hopkins comes down with it. The skill of Hopkins and the speed of Fuller definitely played a factor in Watson's great numbers this season.

Week 6: Browns

Against the Cleveland Browns, Houston returned to the shotgun doubles flex wing formation, which led to a Fuller touchdown.

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Fuller is lined up at the numbers. If the Browns had reviewed film from the Titans game, they would expect Fuller to be running a post route towards the middle of the field, which is the direction Browns safety Jabrill Peppers steps towards.

The Browns are in a Cover-2, with two deep safeties blanketing down the field. Fuller angles towards the middle but then breaks outside. Peppers is unable to recover by the time he sees Fuller break.

Watson puts enough air on the ball for Fuller to adjust and make the catch. Ideally, Watson would hit his receiver in stride, but Fuller's speed allows his quarterback to have a certain amount of leeway.

Week 7: Seahawks

Watson's progression throughout the weeks culminated in what was one of the best games of the year against the Seattle Seahawks. With each team going back and forth on the scoreboard, the Texans ran the shotgun doubles flex wing formation on numerous occasions.

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On the first drive, Fuller catches a touchdown pass on a deep post route. Watson does a great job of reading the safety's eyes and forcing him out of position. As a rookie, it is understated how well Watson is able to do this when making big throws. It's one of the reasons Fuller and Hopkins are able to get single matchups with no safety help. The safeties are drawn into one bad step, and because of the speed of the receivers they aren't able to recover.

Watson moves around the edge rusher, steps up into the pocket, and puts his weight into the throw. Fuller slows down slightly to make the catch. If Watson had anchored his back foot before releasing, it likely would have had enough air under it to hit Fuller in stride.

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Again, the Texans line up in the shotgun doubles flex wing formation. Fuller runs a fly route out of the slot. He is well-covered, and Watson overthrows him. This play is identical to the one that was run against the Chiefs, except that Hopkins runs a slant here instead of a fly. On both plays, the defense was called for pass interference.

Following the snap, Watson looks left, towards Hopkins who is running a slant. The safety shifts towards that side. Recognizing that he has the safety out of position and a one-on-one matchup in the middle of the field. By the time Watson winds up his arm, the safety is too far gone.

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On the above play, Hopkins runs a fade from the slot. Watson goes through his progressions from left to right, and then gives his star receiver a shot at the ball. Watson is never indecisive with what he wants to do, allowing him to go through his progressions quickly.

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Watson's footwork is a key part of his game that needs some work. He often makes things difficult for himself by moving around the pocket towards the rush. There are glimpses when he sits back, reads off the safety, and delivers a deep ball. Other times, he makes the throw while he's off-balanced and not set.

For a rookie, Watson's ability to move safeties is invaluable and will continue to open up opportunities for deep plays. Ideally, Watson will be able to match that strength and deliver a ball where it needs to be instead of requiring his receivers to make adjustments. If O'Brien and Watson are on the same page in terms of their aggressiveness and willingness to take deep shots, Watson is bound to improve on his already stellar numbers.

Assuming that Watson fully recovers from his ACL tear, O'Brien will have a head start on the offensive strategy he wants to implement during the season. Knowing Watson's strengths and weaknesses, and having Hopkins and Fuller ready to go, this offense will definitely be one to keep an eye on next season.

Karan Gill is a writer who lives in Toronto, Ontario. You can follow him on twitter @karangill23.


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