Film Review: How The Texans Line is Buying Deshaun Watson Time

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During the past three weeks, the Houston Texans have allowed for Deshaun Watson to be sacked a total of five times. In that same span, Watson has zero turnovers, eight touchdowns, 656 total yards, on a 66.17% completion rate. Those three games are arguably the most efficient of his career. Before, Watson had averaged 3.38 sacks and 1.38 turnovers per game, while his completion percentage remained the same at around 66 percent. Watson has gotten more acclimated to the NFL speed, but he can’t be credited for all of his improvements. Head coach Bill O’Brien and the offensive line has found ways to protect Watson.

One word to describe the Texans offensive line before their streak of newfound success would be putrid. Horrible, horrendous, terrible, non-existent, frightful, offensive, and awful would all also count. Switching rookie tackle Martinas Rankins for Kendall Lamm, while putting Julién Davenport at left tackle has been a big reason for their success. Kendall Lamm has done an excellent job at right tackle, handling Demarcus Lawrence, Calais Campbell, Cameron Wake, and Von Miller admirably. But that’s not the most significant adjustment; the use of screen passes, a rolling offensive line, extra protection, and play-action have helped masked the Texans line previous failures.

Of Deshaun Watson’s 45 completions in that three-game span, the Texans have used each of those adjustments often.

  • 24.44% of completions on extra protection
  • 15.15% of completions on screen passes
  • 20.00% of completions using rolling blocking
  • 17.17% of completions on play-action
  • 22.22% of completions on regular five-man blocking

Using added protection either out of the backfield or by a tight end is one of the most common ways teams help their quarterback stay protected. Luckily, the Texans have one of the best veteran pass-blocking running backs in the NFL in Lamar Miller. He can either stay blocking a MIKE linebacker and the edge, or he can block then slip out of the pocket to beat the blitz on a short pass (a hot route).

 

Watch how Lamar Miller (No. 26) is able to pick up the blitz from Andre Branch (No. 50). That’s smart pass protection from the running back to enable Watson to find time to push the ball down the field. Tight end Jordan Thomas (No. 83) also does an excellent job of chipping the edge rush, then heading to the flat to expose the man blitz from the Dolphins.

 

Using tight end Jordan Thomas has helped as well. Notice this block above that Thomas (No. 83) does to derail Von Miller. Thomas is not an easy man to get around, his 6’6″, 278-pound frame is one of the biggest in the NFL. The use of Jordan Thomas has not only helped the offensive line, but he has also been an outstanding red zone threat, which shows in his three red-zone touchdowns in two games.

The use of screen passes is another excellent way of masking the offensive line. This is obvious, as screen passes are one of the quickest ways to develop chunk passing yards, while also serving as a way to establish the play-action.

Rolling blocks are useful for shorter passes and on the play-action. Essentially, a rolling line is what it sounds like it. The line rolls to the side featuring the most rushing defenders, often the quarterback or center calls out which side this will be. The rolling line technique has been working in Houston, as it has one of their highest completion rates, opens an easy lane to scramble, and has not been sacked upon in their past three games. Below is an example of their rolling line used well.

 

Watch how the entire line shifts to the left to handle a presumed blitz to that side. While Todd Davis (No. 51) just gets passed a pulling Senio Kelemete (No. 64), the line does an excellent job of protecting from the blitz to allow for Watson to pass for a touchdown. These rolling line plays are not set plays. Instead, center Nick Martin or Deshaun Watson have to call the blitz. They both do so well, which allows them to buy time for Watson.

The increased use of the play-action has helped Watson in a multitude of ways. Despite the Texans not having the most explosive run game in the league, they run the ball a majority of their plays. Thus creating the threat of a run. The benefit of using play-action is that it forces the defense to slow down, letting Watson read the field with less pressure. This also is useful in allowing Watson to step back far behind the pocket, or roll out of the pocket comfortably.

The last number stands out to me most. It just means that the Texans are better in protecting Watson. A lot of that can be credited to how well the line was gelled. The Texans implemented a new front in the off-season, and it took time for them to get used to playing with each other. That new unit has gotten better throughout the season.

 

Watch how well the Texans keep Watson upright in the play above. The line has some chemistry now. Therefore they understand each other’s tendencies. Notice that Zach Fulton (No. 73) covers the double team, then shifts back inside to cover a blitzing Von Miller, while the rest of the line handles the other pass-rushers. Those plays weren’t common earlier in the season, now, they are commonplace.

 

The line hasn’t just improved, Watson has been much better at calling out blitzes. Watch how Watson identifies the MIKE blitz against the Jags here, he spots the five-man blitz and puts Lamar Miller in pass protection. Previously, Watson hadn’t been calling protection, now that he’s seen more of the NFL game, he’s gotten better at dissecting a defense pre-snap. After Watson gets the protection right, he throws a beautiful pass to Hopkins when he beats the press coverage from Ramsey. Yes, the catch was impressive, but, Watsons ability to call out a blitz was even more impressive.

In the span of three games, Watson has been sacked five times. Not great results. But, for a scrambling quarterback, those sacks will happen. Watson often creates plays with his feet, but the Texans have slowed down in letting him run to keep him healthy. In the past three games, Watson has run a set run play just once (a read option toss). Of his five sacks, only two were when the line got beat. Another sack was Watson’s fault as he moved into his center. The other two were based on Watson scrambling instead of throwing the ball away. These are impressive numbers that show Watson is smarter with the ball, while the line has been better in protecting Watson.

Deshaun Watson has always been a good quarterback, dating back to his days at Gainesville High he can read a defense, while his arm and scrambling skills can decimate a defenses plan. But, his lines while with the Texans have disappointed. In 2018, they have done the same, but as of recent, they have learned how to keep Watson upright. In turn, enabling him to use his strong arm and poise in the pocket to create big plays rather than exposing himself to hits while scrambling. The offensive line of the Houston Texans should only get better, but right now, it has improved enough to be respectable against some of the top pass-rushing defenses in the NFL. The Texans should be playing in the playoffs this year, but that’s not just because of Watson and their defense, the line has improved so much that Watson can show just how good of a quarterback he is. The rest of the NFL should be scared of a Deshaun Watson that has the time to think about where he is going rather than forcing the ball to DeAndre Hopkins or Demaryius Thomas.

-Avery Duncan

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