HOUSTON -- Houston Texans players and coaches are fond of the next-man-up mantra when a player gets hurt. Head coach Bill O'Brien used it after J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus suffered season-ending injuries. But losing Deshaun Watson is obviously the worst-case scenario for an offense that has so heavily relied on their rookie quarterback this season.
O’Brien has said that with Watson the Texans have a chance in any game. The rookie has proved that, with 19 passing touchdowns, which is tied for the NFL lead, and the Texans’ offense is averaging an NFL-high 3.3 offensive touchdowns per game. Houston almost pulled off impressive road wins against New England and Seattle behind Watson's incredible performances.
Now, the Texans will rely on backup quarterback Tom Savage, who was replaced at halftime by Watson in his only start of the season. The Texans will go from the signal-caller tied for the NFL lead in passing touchdowns to a fourth-year quarterback who has never thrown a touchdown in the NFL.
The Texans’ offense led by Watson is a far cry from the unit which finished last season with 15 passing touchdowns, and ranked 31st in the league in total touchdowns. This week, O’Brien talked about how Watson’s skillset has lent itself to many changes in the playbook and his mobility has allowed the coaching staff to get more creative with play calls.
O’Brien took over play calling this offseason after the team parted ways with offensive coordinator George Godsey, and the head coach has had a lot of success so far with Watson. While the Texans’ offense won’t totally change, it will certainly be a challenge for O’Brien, especially making those adjustments just three days before Houston hosts the Colts.
Last season, the Texans had an offense that struggled, averaging an NFL-low 1.4 offensive touchdowns per game with Savage and Brock Osweiler under center. Despite that, the Texans won the AFC South by relying on their running game and their defense, which finished the season No. 1 in yards allowed per game.
But that formula is a lot more complicated this year.
In 2017, the defense has dealt with major injuries, including Watt (broken leg), outside linebacker Mercilus (torn pectoral muscle) and defensive end Christian Covington (torn biceps). The unit has the 29th-ranked scoring defense, allowing an average of 26.9 points per game. That got the Texans to 3-4 with Watson under center, putting up more than 30 points per game in five of those contests. This year, the defense will not be able to hide any mistakes by Savage and it will be especially important that he doesn't turn the ball over.
In Savage’s lone start, he was sacked six times in just one half. On Monday, the Texans traded left tackle Duane Brown, their best offensive lineman. Houston likely felt like they could trade Brown because they had a mobile quarterback in Watson.
The offensive line is likely to get Chris Clark -- who started at left tackle for the Texans Weeks 2-6 -- back from a calf injury on Sunday. The offensive line has shown improvement since allowing 10 sacks in the season-opening loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, but several of the linemen said Watson’s ability to scramble helped them have more success in pass protection.
Earlier in the season, center Nick Martin pointed out that 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.”
The Texans have seen what “next man up” looks like with Savage under center, and although his teammates believe in what he can do, going forward, Houston's offense will not look similar to the high-powered unit it has been in 2017.