A Unified Theory of Blitzing and Deshaun Watson

The Houston offense ground to a halt on Sunday, scoring just 13 points against a Jaguars team that was besieged by Kansas City a week before. Jacksonville’s game plan on defense was not overly complex: They decided to blitz Watson early and often, put pressure on Houston’s offensive line, and live with the results. While Watson did complete a few downfield passes, what mostly ended up happening were incompletions and sacks.

My post-game, non-carefully-thought-out theory on this was that the Texans were having problems with careful aggression. Post-Week 2, Watson is third in the NFL in intended air yards via NFL Next Gen Stats, and third in Aggressiveness% — a stat that looks at how often a quarterback targets covered receivers. Last year, on the season, both of those statistics were much closer to middle of the pack. Watson was 26th in Aggressiveness%. He was 11th in intended air yards.

What you need to understand about Bill O’Brien’s design for this offense is, I think, spelled out in three acquisitions:
— He drafted Will Fuller in the first round despite wideout not being a glaring need for the franchise.
— He traded for Laremy Tunsil
— He traded for Kenny Stills

All three of these moves point to wanting to dominate defenses vertically. Fuller has been an amazing downfield receiver and was considered the preeminent deep threat of his draft class. Stills is one of the greatest deep threats of the last five years, especially with the Saints. Tunsil, in theory, provides protection to get Watson the time to get to those throws.

But where the rubber met the road on blitzes last week was pretty simple: O’Brien’s response to the blitz was to try to blow it out of the water deep. It didn’t work.

When Watson reads downfield on this play, both of his receivers to the left are going to be carrying all the way up the field. To the right, his two crossers are going to meet each other and make that throw difficult. And, of course, Johnson is getting covered. Watson has nowhere clean to go to, and the pressure applied to him is so intense that he was taking a shot anyway.

On this blitz, the Texans actually did have a short, quick, first read that is open quickly, but the one who is quickly open is Keke Coutee on the outside. Recall all the talk about Deshaun Watson having a slow ball at the NFL Combine? That hasn’t stopped him from being a good NFL quarterback. But I do think it costs him on throws like this. Watson’s throw appears to be on time, but by the time the ball actually gets there, Coutee is covered well.

The majority of the blitzes that I watched the Jaguars bring left Watson trying to buy time to deliver downfield.

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Bill O’Brien and Deshaun Watson have been up-and-down from the start of the 2018 season on, and I think a lot of it has to do with the boundaries of Watson learning “NFL structure” from O’Brien versus O’Brien making Watson’s life easy. Too often, I think it’s fair to say, Watson hasn’t been given the tools to make his life easy like it was in 2017.

Watson has a clear and demonstrated split towards being better targeting the slot seam on blitzes. One of the few blitzes he easily beat last week was on his throw to Jordan Akins:

Look at how easy that looked. Yes, game situation dictated that the Jags were fine with a ball being caught short of the sticks on third-and-long, and Akins made the play to get the first down. But even setting up fourth-and-short situations with Watson is a big positive.

Remember when the Texans solved the slot blitz against the Jets last year? It came because they targeted the seam:

The plays where Watson was getting eaten alive were all about the hot reads. They were to the outside, or they were slow-developing.

Watson had a 71.1% DVOA throwing to the middle of the field in 2018. In layman’s terms: He was 71.1% better than the average quarterback on a per-play basis when targeting just the middle of the field. It was 54.0% in 2017. So far, in our small sample size of 2019, it is 154.1%. It is the area of the field he throws at best, and, I would wager to say, it’s the area he feels most comfortable throwing to.

So let’s go back to the blitzes for a second. I don’t have advanced charting data for 2019 yet. Let’s pull 2017 and 2018:

You’ll notice 2017 throwing wide looks notably better, but what it really shows is that it’s really hard to get consistent small-sample size results. If you take out 48 and 72-yard touchdown throws, it goes right in line with the YPA of 2018. The 48-yard touchdown came against Kansas City, where Watson completely evaded a blitzer to buy enough time to target downfield. The 72-yarder was a perfectly-blocked screen to Hopkins against the Seahawks.

I’m not here to tell you that Watson is a flawless angel. He didn’t have a great game last week, and he did look slow at times stepping up in the pocket. Watson is capable of riding the emotion of a game and sometimes that leads him to poor decisions still. He nearly got pick-sixed by Jalen Ramsey.

But I do think the majority of the “credit” for the success of the blitzes against the Texans has to go to O’Brien. The best offensive innovators in the NFL are able to scheme open receivers against teams like Jacksonville regularly. Kansas City just spent four quarters doing it in Week 1. Instead of reacting to blitzes by creating open receivers with ease, O’Brien wants to impose his will on the defense. He wants to punish defenses for daring to blitz his quarterback.

As long as he cares to do that instead of dial up some plays that naturally target vacated blitz areas, Watson will be the one that suffers for it.

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