After three weeks, the Texans looked dead in the water. They were considered to be among the bottom-feeders of the league, ranked 29th in ESPN’s power rankings, and their head coach Bill O’Brien was rumored to be on the hot seat.
They responded by winning six in a row and moving into first place in their division. The Texans control their own path to the playoffs now, and they’re coming into FedExField off a bye week and without having lost a game since September.
Sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, a preseason MVP favorite, has both lived up to the hype and disappointed at the same time. He’s had some electric plays, and has a respectable 17-7 touchdown to interception ratio. He’s also taken costly sacks and missed some opportunities.
Watson has led the Texans offense with some big plays. His 8.4 yards per attempt rank seventh among starting quarterbacks (min. 150 dropbacks), and he’s done it with what is widely considered the worst pass blocking offensive line in the league.
Per Football Outsiders, their offensive line has given up the highest pressure rate in the entire league. Defenders are pressuring Watson on a league-high 40.0 percent of drop backs which has led to 30 sacks, the sixth-most in the league.
But sacks can be equal parts on protection and on the quarterback. While there are many examples of Watson getting pressured, and sacked, as soon as the ball is snapped, there are also many examples of him holding the ball for too long.
It’s a drawback of having a scrambling quarterback who can pull big plays out of thin air. Watson has made some magic happen while in trouble, throwing five touchdowns while outside of the pocket and collecting around 30 yards rushing per game. On the other hand, he’s ran himself into his fair share of sacks this year, and has made it difficult on his offensive line by holding onto the ball for an average of 2.96 seconds from snap to attempt, the longest average time in the league according to Pro Football Focus.
The above sack came on a third-and-9 in the fourth quarter of a one-point game. The Broncos were leading the Texans 17-16 and had sacked Watson three times already. The receiver in the slot, Deandre Hopkins (No. 10), ran a sail route to the sideline, the middle receiver, Jordan Atkins (No. 88), ran a fade and the outside receiver, Demaryius Thomas (No. 87), rant a slant underneath them. It looks like Watson’s first read was the slant, but both inside defensive backs, Chris Harris and Su'a Cravens (No. 25 and No. 21) stayed underneath to cover it. Watson then looked to his left, which had a drag from the running back and a short hitch from the tight end, both of which were covered. The only receiver who had separation on the play was Hopkins (No. 10) from the slot, but by the time he came open Watson had moved on from that read.
The Broncos defensive line played contain on the right side and waited for Watson to move from the pocket. When the slant on the right doesn't get open underneath, Watson starts to look left and then tries to run when the end crashes inside. The stunt the Broncos ran on the left would have worked sooner if DeMarcus Walker (No. 57) didn't fall down, but Bradley Chubb (No. 55) does a good job disengaging from his blocker as soon as Watson tries to run though the gap for the first down. It looked like the defensive line's priority on this play was to keep Watson from running for the first down, and it resulted in a sack that forced a field goal in the red zone. Watson held the ball over six seconds from snap to sack.
Houston has also benefited from Watson's ability to hold the ball until something develops. In the play above, Watson held the ball for more than eight seconds, ran to his right, didn't see anything, ran to his left and then backpedaled and threw a touchdown pass to his tight end Jordan Thomas (No. 83), who found an opening in the zone on a scramble drill.
Forcing Watson into the bad decisions, and containing his penchant for playmaking, will be key in stopping the Texans offense.
On the other side of the ball, a vested veteran has found his way back into the nightmares of opposing quarterbacks. J.J. Watt has returned to stacking up sacks at a blistering rate, notching nine of them through nine games. After Watt missed significant portions of 2016 and 2017 due to injury, he's once again treating fans of defensive line dominance to a masterclass on pass rushing.
Watt has lined up almost exclusively on the outside of the defensive line this season during passing downs. In past years he moved around a lot more, but the Texans have liked rushing him wide left and having Jadeveon Clowney rush from the wide right, and it's worked. Watt is PFF's second-highest graded edge defender this season, and Houston's defense is allowing the fourth-fewest yards per play and the seventh-fewest points per game.
Watt has forced four fumbles on the season, matching his career high. The Texans have benefited from some of his highlight plays, like the one above. Watt cleanly beats the right tackle Chad Wheeler (No. 63) as soon as the ball is snapped, doesn't let him get his hands on him by using a rip move after getting the tackle to punch -- or extend his arms early -- and then bends the corner and strips the ball out of Eli Manning's hands.
The play above is impressive and a game changer, but Watt and Clowney also have plenty of non-highlight reel plays that have helped Houston climb to the top of the AFC South. The Texans are tied with the Bears for fewest yards allowed per rush at 3.6, in large part because of Clowney and Watt, who are both tied for fifth in the league in run stops among edge defenders at 16 a piece. They've been excellent in the run game, and it will be a marquee matchup to watch this Sunday as the Redskins have heavily relied on their ability to run the ball in order to win games.
The Jaguars ran an outside zone play to the left, where they had No. 69, an extra offensive linemen, playing tight end. Clowney is lined up on the outside shoulder of Tyler Shatley (No. 69), and as soon as the ball is snapped he gets his hands inside of his shoulders, stands him up and then throws him aside to make the tackle once T.J. Yeldon (No. 24) commits inside.
Clowney set the edge perfectly and dictated where the running back went from snap to whistle.
Over their last six games, the Texans have averaged more than four tackles for loss per game. They've held opposing teams to 83.3 rushing yards per game at a 3.6 yards per carry average. Running on the Texans front seven is not an easy task.
The two best run defenses the Redskins have faced this season have been the Saints and the Cowboys, who are both top 10 in yards per carry and total rushing yards allowed. The Redskins averaged 3.38 yards per carry against them, and 84.9 yards per game on the ground.
With a banged-up offensive line and an offense reliant on running the football, Washington will have to work some magic in order to move the ball this Sunday against Houston's front.