What was old was new again in the playoffs as the Buffalo Bills sacked Deshaun Watson seven times on just 12 blitzes, forcing seven scrambles. Watson came out just fine empirically when he was throwing the ball — he completed 20-of-25 passes for one score and lost one fumble — but the end result has created some interesting dissonance. Who is to blame — if we need someone to blame — for Watson’s sacks? I’ll tell you up front that this is not a question that has an easy answer for someone outside the building. But let’s put all the information we have out on the table.
1 — Other quarterbacks have not seen the massive increase in sack rate that Watson has under Bill O’Brien
Now, granted, all these quarterbacks were a) often given a better offensive line since Duane Brown was a Texan prior to 2017 and b) were compared against NFL stats instead of college stats. Still, that’s a startling increase for Watson only when you compare it to other players. If you’re curious about Tom Savage (read: are related to Savage), he carried an NFL sack rate of 7.9% and a college sack rate of 12.1%(!!!).
Presented with these numbers, it’s quite easy to leap to “It is Watson’s fault.” However, the quarterback — as demonstrated on the final real offensive play of Wild Card Weekend — also avoids a ton of sacks.
Remember when Sean McVay was a genius and the Rams made the Super Bowl, but everyone started copying New England’s successful Super Bowl plan and he was forced off his main game plan? Jared Goff’s 2019 implosion didn’t show us anything 2018 didn’t in small bursts — he was always a bit limited. I think the spread of information has gotten faster and faster, and — ala Independence Day — people are getting on the wiretap and getting the word out faster about how to beat certain coaches and systems. The gap between good coaching and mediocre coaching in the NFL has never been greater than it is today.
It is true that Watson has taken more sacks, but he’s also been at the helm of an offense that has seen free rushers come at him more often than any of his predecessors.
2 — Adding Laremy Tunsil has barely helped anything on this front
Tunsil would probably be in All-Pro conversation instead of the Pro Bowl land had he not false started enough to have this graphic created by CBS:
This year, with top-notch pass protection, the Texans had a moderate reduction in quarterback hit percentage — Watson was hit on a career-low 8.3 percent of his dropbacks and sacked on a career-low 8.2 percent of his dropbacks. But while adding Tunsil has undoubtedly upgraded the offensive line situation and given Watson a number of clean pockets more than Julien Davenport would have, it hasn’t actually tied together in a more cohesive offense. Watson still gets sacked a ton.
The reason — as was obvious in the 2018 season — is that Laremy Tunsil can’t block three guys on his own. Blitzes and schemed pressures are a bigger part of Watson’s sack rate than poor overall line play was.
(Which, again Tunsil fans, does not mean he was not an improvement. Please don’t turn this into a discussion about That Trade.)
3 — 2018 or 2019, it’s hard to find clips of easy hot reads
During the run up to Watson’s first playoff game in 2018, the Colts and the Jets started blitzing him relentlessly. Watson took 15 blitzes from the Jets in Week 15 and was sacked six times. On only one pass in that entire game did the Jets bring a blitz where Watson had an easy throw to make:
I can remember maybe one or two other designs by the Texans that actually capitalized on the pressure coming in either year. One of them was when Ryan Griffin faking staying in to block, but then popping out for a huge gain over an uncovered middle.
Most of the hot reads as they show on film are deep balls or balls to the flats, which are throws Watson has a harder time making against zone defenders that are waiting to sink on the ball.
One of the major sticking points of the O’Brien era has been an acquisition of players who are primarily here to create deep balls: Will Fuller, Tunsil, Kenny Stills. Yet, the Texans are comparatively awkward in play-action because they always have too many blockers, and the Texans barely even bother throwing deep when Fuller isn’t in the lineup. It creates a recipe where, even though the players have the talent to perform well, things get a little too one-dimensional at times.
Note that earlier this season the Chiefs brought a blitz on fourth-and-3 for the game and it was a slant that converted. Everyone looked like a goddamn genius just because it was a simple throw.
4 — Bill O’Brien knows enough to fix this
Listen, you can find coaching clinics where O’Brien sounds quite smart about blocking and picking up rushers, though I will admit when he says in this below clip that they “only had two answers” for blitz-zero (all-out blitz) at Penn State that was mildly concerning to me.
So the two examples in that video are to throw a screen or to slide the protection. The Texans threw just 62 passes behind the line of scrimmage all season. To put that into context, Kyler Murray led the league with 109. Nine different quarterbacks were over 90. Almost ALL of Watson’s throws in that area are to the middle — they’re little pitches off jet motion or something similar to that. Only 37% of his throws went to the sides. So they’re barely running those screens anymore.
The slide protection is what happened on Watson’s spincycle evasion last week — Buffalo brought someone that Watson couldn’t account for, so he knew he’d have to throw hot:
However, his first look was to go to DeAndre Hopkins, something that the Bills anticipated — everyone in any defensive building knows that 10 is Houston’s go-to receiver and treats him as such — and one of Buffalo’s coverage players was prepared and ready to jump the ball. Watson on Wednesday would say that he probably should have had eyes on someone else:
It’s very easy to hindsight critique Watson for this, but this is what Watson’s play personality is. He’s the guy who is going to get kicked in the eye and make the throw. He’s going for the jugular whenever he can. And of course the first read is Hopkins in Cover-0 — you want the ball to go to your best players. It’s the route depth that became the problem that forced that much time to be bought in the first place. Hopkins released outside and then went completely vertical.
I also want to post this video of O’Brien talking about Watson scrambling less this year and how that ties into his job pulling the strings:
“You cannot take away the instincts of a guy like Deshaun Watson,” is strong. It makes a great sound byte too — who has ever wanted to be limited by a head coach?
But in this case I think it’s a bit misplaced.
The funny thing about this is a) every time I’ve seen the Texans actually put in easy hot routes for Watson to hit, he hits them and b) the Texans look fantastic as an offense when they do and it helps open up the deep passing game.
Let’s talk a little bit about “you cannot take away the instincts of a guy like Deshaun Watson.” I would argue that it’s your job as a head coach to take away some instincts if it keeps you under seven sacks — this offense gets destroyed by negative plays in every game. Too many inside zone runs that everyone sees coming, too many sacks, and too many penalties. When you don’t have the explosive plays that Fuller provides, it’s tough sledding to keep an offense afloat with so much weighing it down. That’s what we saw for Houston’s first four drives against a good Buffalo defense. That’s why the Texans’ most important offensive play this season is literally their quarterback’s +5 dexterity check bailing them out. O’Brien’s offense has somehow become a place where read-options are safer than dropbacks for his quarterback’s health.
I’m well-aware I’m not going to be changing anyone’s mind about who is “at fault” here. I read the Twitter comments. I know which side you’ve staked out. But regardless of what side you’re on, the answer is actually not all that hard. Hot routes need to be better designed and hit. You can’t run two outside curls against an all-out blitz and expect that to get it done. Run drags. Run slants. Fake blockers that become receivers. Run Duke Johnson screens. That’s four ideas off the top of my head without even thinking about it too hard. I try to praise this stuff whenever I see it, because I don’t think anyone involved is stupid. It just has become a matter of intense stubbornness, in my opinion.
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