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Pro Football Focus: Why Bills defenders should be able to get to Deshaun Watson

Pro Football Focus Senior Analyst Billy Moy will be contributing to all season long. 

In this week’s PFF breakdown, rather than looking back at Buffalo’s Week 5 victory against the Tennessee Titans, we’re going to look ahead to Week 6 when the Bills travel to Houston to square off with the Texans. The Texans' offense is led by their electric quarterback, Deshaun Watson (who’s currently ranked ninth among quarterbacks with an 85.0 PFF overall grade) along with perennial All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins (ranked second among receivers with an 89.6 overall grade). Their offense is by no means infallible though, there is one key area in which Buffalo’s defense should have an advantage.

Watson followed up a promising rookie season with more impressive play through the first five weeks. He sits right in the middle of the pack, ranking 17th among signal-callers with a 73.7 adjusted completion percentage (which accounts for drops, throwaways, spikes, batted passes and passes where the QB is hit as he throws), while aggressively pushing the ball down the field with an average depth of target of 10.7 yards (third in the league).

Watson's status for Sunday's game remains in question. He is being listed by the Texans as day-to-day with a chest injury suffered against the Cowboys.

Like virtually every other quarterback that’s ever played football, though, Watson’s play and production takes a hit when he faces pressure.

Watson has started 11 regular season games in his budding career. As a starter, when given the opportunity to throw against a pass rush of four or fewer defenders who fail to get pressure, he’s posted a 75.0 adjusted completion percentage to go with a 108.3 passer rating and an 86.9 PFF passing grade.

When the opposing defense has been able to land pressure with just four or fewer defenders, his numbers take a tumble, posting just a 53.5 adjusted completion percentage to go with a 60.9 passer rating and a 52.5 PFF passing grade.

By now you might be wondering why we’re specifically focusing on four or fewer pass-rushers. The Bills' defense has rushed the quarterback with four or fewer defenders on 78 percent of their pass-defense snaps this season and they rank seventh among all defenses with a 49.7 pass-rushing productivity rating when rushing fewer than five defenders (PRP measures pressure created on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks).

Among the Bills' opponents, the Ravens and Packers rank within the top 10 in terms of pass-blocking efficiency against a pass rush of four or fewer defenders (PBE is the inverse of PRP. It measures pressure surrendered on a per-snap basis, again with weighting toward sacks).

The Chargers rank 24th in PBE against a pass rush of four or fewer, but they have Philip Rivers at quarterback, who’s been unfazed by pressure this season, posting a 79.5 adjusted completion percentage and a 123.6 passer rating against pressure from a four-man (or fewer) rush.

The Vikings and Titans rank 31st and 22nd, respectively, in terms of PBE against a fewer than five-man pass rush, and neither of those teams has Rivers behind center.

Guess who Buffalo’s two wins have come against this year?

In their wins against the Vikings and Titans, the Bills defense got pressure with no more than a four-man rush on 61.2 percent of their opponents’ passing snaps (the league average this season is 39.1 percent) and against the Chargers' porous offensive line, they were still able to achieve pressure 45.8 percent of the time. In their other two losses though, against two good offensive lines, the Bills managed to get pressure on just 23.7 percent of their pass-rush attempts with fewer than five defenders rushing the quarterback.

The Texans offensive line ranks 29th in terms of PBE against fewer than five-man rushes.

So connecting the dots:

  • Buffalo faces Watson this weekend.
  • Watson has continued to build off a strong rookie season but has shown in his young career that he can struggle when you can get pressure on him while still dropping seven into coverage.
  • Buffalo’s pass rush has feasted while rushing fewer than five against teams that have struggled to stop such pass-rushes this season, leading them to victory in two of those three games.
  • Buffalo’s pass rush has struggled against teams that have been good at stopping those rushes, and they lost both of those games.
  • Buffalo faces a team in Week 6 that has one of the worst offensive lines in football when it comes to pass protection.

The Bills are averaging 12.6 points per game this season and anybody who has watched even a few minutes of their offense knows that it’s not likely a unit that’s going to carry Buffalo to many victories.

However, Buffalo’s defensive line should be licking their chops at the chance to face Houston’s pass protectors, and if they can dominate as they did against Minnesota and Tennessee, the Bills could exit Week 6 with a 3-3 record.

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