For Deshaun Watson, Texans seek balance between big plays, big hits

Bruschi, Woodson split on Colts-Texans AFC wild card (1:23)

Tedy Bruschi likes the Texans at home, while Darren Woodson predicts the Colts to continue their hot streak in this AFC wild-card game. (1:23)

HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans certainly want the ball in quarterback Deshaun Watson's hands as much as possible, because so much of the good in their season has been rooted in what Watson has done.

It's just they don't want him to get hit so much while he's doing it.

"His instincts and his playmaking ability are the things that make him special," Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said. "It's a delicate balance for sure."

Delicate, as in an awful lot of the Texans' fortunes in Saturday's wild-card game against the Indianapolis Colts (4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN) will be tied to just how clean Houston can keep Watson.

Because Watson, in his second season as the starter, was the only quarterback in the league this season who threw for at least 4,000 yards (4,165) and ran for at least 500 (551). He accounted for 31 of the Texans' 38 touchdowns on offense (26 passing, five rushing) during the regular season.

The rub is, Watson also was the most sacked quarterback in the NFL, having been somewhat unceremoniously tossed to the ground 62 times. Though three of the four quarterbacks who were sacked more than 50 times this season are in the playoff field -- Watson, the Cowboys' Dak Prescott and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson -- it isn't a cycle the Texans want to be in with their cherished passing prospect, who tore his right ACL during a practice in November 2017.

"We're always going to talk about the internal clock in his head and getting the ball out, understanding when you can't take a sack, whether it's in the red zone or certain times in the game when we cannot take a sack," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "In that case, you have to realize the situation you're in, always being aware of down, distance, time in the game, what's going on and when you can take those chances and hold on to the ball and try to make a play and when you just flat-out can't."

The Colts have been especially troublesome in that regard for Watson and the Texans. Indianapolis sacked Watson seven times in the Texans' win Sept. 30 and they got him five times in the Colts' Dec. 9 win in Houston.

The Colts' Denico Autry, a 270-pounder who will line up all over the Colts' defensive front, led the Colts in sacks this season with nine. Four of those were at the expense of Watson in the two games against the Texans.

On Thursday, O'Brien called Autry "a very hard guy to deal with inside. Inside pass-rusher. Very explosive guy ... He's a very aggressive player. Plays with great energy. He's a tough matchup for any team."

It's all a tricky combination for the Texans, who have seen so often what Watson can do when he extends a play to make the big throw in a big moment or pulls the ball down to run while defensive backs are chasing Houston's receivers the other direction in man coverage. Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu simply called Watson a "superstar in my eyes."

In short, the Texans don't want to inhibit Watson from making those big plays -- the ones that make defensive coordinators toss the headsets when the right call turns into trouble because of Watson's work off schedule.

But the Texans do want to limit the sacks he can avoid. They are the ones that come with just one too many glances down the field on a play that is already lost.

"I don't think sacks are ever created equal," Ryan said. "I think they're plays into themselves and there's always reasons. Sometimes it can be a lot of different reasons why a sack happens. We try to correct them as they come and learn from them so it doesn't happen again the same way and we move on."

For Watson, it's just about the learning curve as he tries to push for wins, fuel comebacks and be consistently at his best in the biggest of moments.

"I'm always thinking positive, I never want any negative energy around me," he said. "I guess you could say my previous experience throughout my life kind of built me for moments like this. At the end of the day, Coach always tells me it's just football. There's real stuff that's going on outside of that football field. At the end of the day, it's football. It's what you've been doing your whole life. Just take it one play at a time, don't make it bigger than what it is and don't make it less than what it is. Kind of keep that balance, keep it neutral, keep it in the middle and just go out there and prove that every play is going to be successful."