Sarah Barshop, ESPN Staff Writer 12d

The Deshaun Watson Effect: How QB is making entire team better



HOUSTON -- Over the past two games, rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson not only has given the Houston Texans a passing game they haven't had in a long time, but also has affected the entire team.

Even the head coach.

“Everybody asks me … how does he learn? It’s the same thing for me,” Bill O’Brien said. “How am I learning about coaching him? How is [quarterbacks coach] Sean Ryan learning about coaching him? That’s the type of guy he is. ... [He’s] a very fun guy to coach because there’s a lot of good give-and-take in the meeting room.

“I think there’s a definite correlation between good players and good coaches.”

In the past two games, the Texans have scored 90 points -- 76 on offense -- in a home rout of the Tennessee Titans and a three-point road loss to the New England Patriots.

Watson not only has improved the passing game but also has made the rest of the team better, boosting the Texans’ defense and offensive line. Watson wears defenses down, while his own defense, one of the best in football, is able to rest.

“I think any time that you have a quarterback who performed like he did on Sunday at a pretty high level, it kind of gives everybody a shot in the arm, a little bit of juice, some confidence,” Ryan said.

“He changes the game and gets things moving. Certainly, he did that Sunday, and we have to build on that.”

Passing game

In 2016, the Texans ran the ball well but struggled through the air with QBs Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage. Watson has played all but nine offensive series for the Texans in 2017. Savage opened the season as the starter but was benched at halftime of the Texans' Week 1 loss to the Jaguars. And Savage replaced the rookie at the end of Houston’s 57-14 blowout of Tennessee in Week 4.

Watson is averaging 2.46 points per drive (and 5.3 yards per play) compared to the 0.33 points (and 1.6 yards per play) Savage has generated, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The rookie is averaging 7.1 yards per pass attempt to Savage’s 4.8.

“I just know if I get open, he’s going to put the ball in the right spot,” wide receiver Bruce Ellington said. “It just makes my job easier when I know the ball’s going to be right there if I come out and make a move after the catch.”

Against the Titans, the Texans ran read-option plays with Watson, something wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said he hasn’t run since he was at Clemson, and something that NFL defenses rarely see.

“I feel like a rookie,” Hopkins said with a smile. “You have a guy like Deshaun out there that’s doing things that I haven’t done since I’ve been in college in that offense, just scrambling with a quarterback that can make plays after the play is considered dead. It’s a good feeling just knowing you have a guy that’s going to keep plays continued. A guy like Deshaun, it’s the same offense, but still, we have to do what he does best.”

In addition to opening up the Texans' offense to new plays and schemes, particularly in the rushing attack, Watson's legs have proved valuable in the passing game by extending plays. The Texans have never had a quarterback as mobile as Watson, particularly compared to Osweiler and Savage.

Watson put that on full display with his 49-yard touchdown run during Houston's Week 2 victory in Cincinnati. It was the longest rushing touchdown by a quarterback in franchise history, and it was improvised: Watson escaped the pocket and made a play.

“Anytime that you have a quarterback that has the ability to make plays outside of the pocket, I definitely think that that adds another dimension to your offense that’s hard to defend,” O’Brien said. “Now, teams are going to do different things to keep him in the pocket, and I have a lot of trust and confidence in him that he’ll do a good job in that situation, too. His ability to extend plays has helped us.”

While every play that breaks down doesn't conclude with Watson scrambling to the end zone, many of them end with completions to receivers who are getting used to improvising their routes when the need arises.

“We all make each other better,” Hopkins said. “Him getting the ball where it needs to be. Just getting the ball to his playmakers. He makes the whole team better, not just me."

Offensive line

The Texans' offensive line has improved significantly as the season has progressed. Savage was pressured on 60 percent of his snaps to just 39 percent for Watson. Savage has been sacked seven times this season, six of which came in the first half against the Jaguars in Week 1. Watson has been sacked 10 times in 3½ games, four of which came in the second half against Jacksonville.

For Houston's offensive line, Watson's ability to extend plays has given new meaning to the saying, "The play isn't over until the whistle is blown."

“You don’t have a time clock in your head. You’ve got to block, and obviously he’s going to be making plays [and] expand the play, so you’ve got to keep going,” center Nick Martin said.

“All of a sudden, your man might just take off, so you’re just going to go chase him and follow him and try to give him as much time as possible.”

Watson’s elusiveness can bail out the offensive line.

“He makes people miss,” Martin said. “You mess up, and all of a sudden your guy is there, and somehow, someway he gets out of it and makes a big play.”

Defense

The Texans' offense was on the field for 39 minutes, 41 seconds against the Titans en route to scoring 50 of their franchise-record 57 points. Houston's defense played only 41 snaps, the lowest number in the NFL since the Titans hit that mark against the Miami Dolphins in Week 5 last season.

The NFL's reigning No. 1 defense probably doesn't need more time than normal to rest between drives on the sideline, but the unit is getting more time.

“It’s huge,” defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel said. “Guys were over there looking for exercise bikes to ride. We were running out of bikes to ride and get warmed up. So when our offense can do that, that’s amazing."

J.J. Watt led the Texans with 40 snaps played of the Titans' 41 offensive plays; outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and inside linebacker Zach Cunningham were next with 78 percent of the snaps.

“Man, it was kind of crazy,” Clowney said. “We usually play in a lot of snaps on defense, but this game we didn’t get to play too many snaps. I think I was on the sidelines, like, hollering at the coach one time, like, ‘Man, I’m not on the field enough.’ He was like, ‘J.D., nobody’s on the field right now.’”

Over the past two games, for the first time in recent memory, the Texans' offense looked like a strength.

“The more that they score, the easier it is for us, and you get some plays off and you get to take a break, have a sip of Gatorade on the sideline and just watch," Watt said.

“I got the best seats in the house.”

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