In breaking on to the scene in an abbreviated sample in 2017, Deshaun Watson absolutely torched defenses on slant routes. He threw nine of them, completed seven of them, and had a league-leading 55.4% DVOA on those passes. It was hardly the only throw he was good at, and it was a small enough sample size for a stathead to collectively shrug their shoulders about it.
While I do not have DVOA for specific routes just yet — that comes later in the Football Outsiders calendar — I do have success rates. Watson’s success on slants in 2018 is still quite impressive: He threw 47 slant patterns, 30 of which were successful plays. He went 33-of-47 on slant patterns for 376 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and 18 first downs.
So, cool, tidy that stat up for a Tweet that will get retweeted around context-free so that everyone can quotetweet their own opinion to it. “Wow.” “He’s becoming so great.” “I didn’t know this throw was so good,” and so on.
But let’s actually figure out why these throws were so successful — what goes in to making the slant a successful play for the Texans?
When the Texans ran slants in 2018, it was usually out of a couple different concepts. Against the Patriots, they started the season using the packaged play concept that worked so well for Watson in 2017. Despite the fact that Watson played poorly against the Patriots, it had nothing to do with the packaged plays:
Run-pass options ravaged New England in Week 1 — in fact almost all of Watson’s positive plays came off of slant throws. 6 of 6 for 74 yards, four first downs, and a touchdown. He was 11-of-28 on non-slant targets for 102 yards.
Naturally, that was enough to move away from packaged plays as a staple concept of the offense for the rest of the season. In watching every slant throw that the Texans attempted in 2018, I only counted a rogue throw here or there that actually came with play-action. I … well, you get nowhere by trashing coaches. But I will never understand why Bill O’Brien went away from packaged plays as a staple concept of Houston’s offense. It did wonders in 2017, and even when it failed in the small sample sizes it was given in the rest of 2018, it wasn’t because the throws weren’t there to be made.
Empty sets became a staple concept for Houston in the passing game this year. It gave Watson the ability to determine more of the pre-snap field, and the slant off empty sets in particular became one of the Texans “have to have it” playcalls. They called it with 19 seconds left in Indianapolis to set up the game-winning field goal in overtime. They called it multiple times against the Jets in Watson’s go-ahead touchdown drive. Because of how easy it is to manipulate the coverage out of empty, it takes sharp instincts to actually fight back against the Texans. That sort of play did happen in Week 4 against the Colts:
If Anthony Walker is properly occupied, this is a completion. But because he is able to read the quarterback’s eyes, he makes this play on a ball that’s not even thrown to his man. Watson saw Walker, and adjusted to try to squeeze it in before Walker’s throwing lane, causing the ball to head right to Pierre Desir. That was the one pick that the Texans had against a slant this year and it took a terrific read and, I would guess, good coaching on tendencies to be able to come up with it.
Watson’s accuracy over the middle was generally very good
When Watson was incomplete on a slant, it usually wasn’t by much. Keke Coutee and Demaryius Thomas both had balls in hand range that they didn’t catch — Coutee presents some problems being much shorter than Hopkins, and I don’t think Thomas and Watson were entirely on the same page at that point.
I’ve got another couple of routes I want to show off because I think they demonstrate other elements of Watson’s game that particularly works well on these routes. Here’s one against the Giants in Week 3:
I like slant routes as a second or third option for Watson because he seems to have good recognition instantly on them — he makes the read and attacks the throw or moves on. Here, under pressure by the Giants, he steps up on the money deeper down the field.
Then there’s this throw against the Jaguars in Week 7:
Watson is great at lofting throws — the Jaguars actually anticipate this throw to some extent and have Barry Church waiting in the flat, but it doesn’t bother the Texans because Watson just flicks the wrist right over Church’s head.
Watson’s most accurate throws come over the middle, and his ability to put touch on the ball can be a handy tiebreaker when he notices underneath defenders.
The Stat Dump: DeAndre Hopkins usually being the target helps
Hopkins was the target on 34 of Watson’s slant throws. 24 of those were successful plays.
Per Sports Info Solutions database, only 13 of the 47 slant patterns Watson threw were in zone coverage.
From the beginning of the season to Week 7, most of Houston’s slants came from the slot. From Week 8 to the end of the season, most of the slants came from the outside receiver
Nine of the first 28 slant targets Texans receivers had in 2018 came from the outside. Only five of their last 19 slant targets came from the outside.
Now that you know why slants work for the Texans, there’s only one thing left to say, right?
Bring run-pass options back as a staple concept, Bill.
I know you don’t like all this fancy stuff, but the personnel screams for it, and if nothing else it’s another way to help your running game. I know you love to pound the rock. Let’s frame it like that: it gives those box defenders yet another reason to not make the right read and instead give you an advantage. That’s what you like, right? I like easy throws over the middle myself, but we can agree on this, right?