Buffalo fans should pay attention to “Pocket Deshaun” Sunday when the Bills visit Houston.
Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson gets a lot of attention for his athleticism and ability to scramble around. He’s an outstanding thrower on the move. He may well burn the Bills for a big play downfield in scramble mode.
But Watson’s development as a passer from the pocket in just Year Two of his NFL career is impressive. Houston is trying to have him pass more from the pocket this season, both to make its offense more dangerous and to help keep him healthy.
It’s working. Watson enters this week’s game with a streak of four straight 300-yard passing games. He ranks sixth in the NFL in passing yards.
When Watson took over the starting job last season, the Texans helped simplify things for him. There were a lot of moving pockets, bootlegs and roll-outs. It looked much the way the Bills helped Josh Allen in last week’s win over Tennessee.
In Sunday’s win over Dallas, Watson completed 28 of 38 passes on throws from the pocket, not counting screens or shovel passes. On only five of 51 drop-backs did the Texans run bootlegs, roll-outs or moving pockets.
Before he was drafted in the first round in 2017, Watson bristled at the suggestion his running ability made him less of a pocket quarterback. He’s proving it this season.
“I’m light years from where I was last year,” Watson said before the season. “Coming in as a rookie, just kind of knowing what I knew from college and what I learned in the pre-draft and then what I learned in the QB room. Everything was going so fast.”
If Allen can play anything like Watson is playing from the pocket a year from now, it will be very good news for the Bills.
Of course, Watson has one giant advantage over Allen at the moment: a top-flight receiving corps. The Texans have one of the best wideouts in the NFL in DeAndre Hopkins, a speed threat in Will Fuller (who is banged up this week) and a quick-separation slot receiver in Keke Coutee.
Watson does not have a cannon arm like Allen. He’s a good touch passer. His completion percentage is 65.1.
He’s thriving this season despite a shaky offensive line. He has been sacked 18 times, tied for second most in the NFL behind Allen.
Watson took a sack and 10 hits vs. Dallas and came out of the game with a bruised chest.
O’Brien says this about the clock in Watson’s head: “Probably the best young quarterback I’ve ever coached at making the right decision. But, he needs to probably make that right decision all the time, if that makes sense.”
But O’Brien made it clear on Monday that the hits on Watson must slow down.
“Obviously, those are plays that we want to cut down on and we’re going to work hard to do that moving forward because we know that that’s not a sustainable way to play, to be hit that much in a game,” he said.
The 30,000-foot view: Texans General Manager Brian Gaine is in his first season on the job after spending 2017 as the Bills’ vice president of player personnel. When Gaine was hired, the Texans wisely moved to join him and O’Brien at the hip. They extended O’Brien’s contract through 2022, matching Gaine’s deal. O’Brien and previous GM Rick Smith were not on the same page the previous couple of years.
Mr. Production: Hopkins is an interesting NFL superstar in that he lacks elite measurables. He ran a pedestrian 4.57 time in the 40-yard dash coming out of Clemson in 2013. He has good size (6-1, 212 pounds) but isn’t huge. He isn’t the most precise route-runner. Yet his production is phenomenal, just as it was in college at Clemson. He had 96 catches last season for 1,378 yards. At age 26, he’s the third-youngest receiver to 6,000 career yards in history (behind only Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald).
Hopkins is one of the top boundary receivers in the league, thanks to his big hands, long arms and athleticism. The Texans love to run the fade to him down the sideline. And he has put up huge numbers with Matt Schaub, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage as his QBs most of his first five seasons.
(Here's Hopkins on his favored fade pass in the red zone against the Colts two weeks ago.)
“Personally, I don’t feel like any receiver could do what I’ve done with the quarterbacks I’ve played with – make the Pro Bowls, have the amount of catches I’ve had,” Hopkins said in an NFL Network interview.
Weak link: The Texans’ offensive line is shaky, especially left tackle Julie’n Davenport. He moved from right tackle to the left side last week, replacing struggling rookie Martinas Rankin. Davenport has allowed three sacks and 23 pressures, second most among NFL tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Rankin has the most allowed (27). Right tackle Kendall Lamm isn’t an asset, either.
DeAndre Hopkins vs. Tre White: The Bills surely will try to have White shadow Hopkins. The Texans’ star already has 39 catches for 549 yards, a pace that would give him 125 for 1,757 for the season. Hopkins was targeted on 35 percent of Houston’s passes last season, No. 1 in the NFL. He has been targeted 30.5 percent of the throws this year.
Jerry Hughes vs. Julie’n Davenport. The Bills must win the defensive line of scrimmage. It will be interesting to see if Hughes adjusts his rush angles to try to keep Watson in the pocket. Davenport was a fourth-round pick last season out of Bucknell who’s in his first season as a starter.
Kelvin Benjamin vs. Texans’ CBs. The Texans play a lot of quarters coverage, which essentially is man on the outside. They play a lot of straight man coverage on third downs. The Bills’ O-line has a tough matchup this week. So the receivers must win this week. Texans corner Jonathan Joseph is a savvy veteran who’s near the end of the line. He plays off coverage and doesn’t move that well anymore. Another older veteran, ex-Bill Shareece Wright, manned the other corner spot last week. Benjamin needs to catch balls this week.
Stat for the road: The Texans have played three top-level quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Andrew Luck) and blitzed those three 27 percent. Against the two lesser QBs they faced (Blaine Gabbert and Dak Prescott), they blitzed 50 percent. Look for them to come after Allen.