Houston Texans’ rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson emerged victorious in his first career start, leading his team to a narrow 13-9 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals. While he turned in the biggest play of the game, a 49-yard scramble for the game’s only touchdown, there were some areas of concern. During the draft process one of the negatives on Watson was that he would stare down routes, and that he was a “one-read” quarterback who could not work through progressions. Thursday night’s game illustrated both the truth of that statement, as well as the potential to turn it into fiction.
In the first half, Watson threw two passes that could have easily been intercepted and returned for touchdowns. The first came on a slow-developing smoke route to DeAndre Hopkins that was jumped by Adam “Pacman” Jones. The issue there was more of execution from both quarterback and receiver – and perhaps velocity from the QB – than anything else. The second, however, was a true example of Watson looking right at his first read, and missing the rest of the story.
Midway through the first quarter with the game locked in a scoreless tie, the Texans face a 2nd and 5 on their own 37-yard line. On this play, one of the many where head coach Bill O’Brien decided to empty the backfield, Watson stands alone in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel on the field. The offense has slot formation to the left, with Hopkins (#10) outside and running back Tyler Ervin (#34) in the slot. Three receivers align to the right, with practice squad player Evan Baylis (#81) in a wing position. Cincinnati has its 4-2-5 nickel defense on the field and pre-snap they show a single-high safety look:
Now let’s step into Watson’s mind for a second, remembering that playing quarterback is hard and there is a ton of information you need to process before and during every single snap. Looking at the defense, this is a single-high look which suggests Cover 1. That suggestion is given a bit more evidence by the lone safety, who aligns shaded to the three-receiver side of the formation, as well as the two linebackers, who show blitz.
Look at the other four defensive backs. Each of them is in a zone-stance, hips toward the middle of the field, eyes locked on the quarterback. These are zone coverage cues for the quarterback:
The football is in the middle of the field. With two different passing concepts called, you might expect the quarterback to take the easier throw to the short side of the field based on this look. But now, things are equal, so the quarterback should try and attack a zone coverage look with the best concept. The Stick concept to the right side would give some good options. Trying to throw Tosser against a zone look might pose some problems.
But since Watson is thinking Cover 1 right now, he comes to the Tosser and tries to throw the outside slant route, since he sees the off coverage pre-snap as well as the potential blitzers. So as the play begins, he flashes his eyes right to Hopkins:
As you can see, problems are developing already. The playside linebacker Nick Vigil (#59) is not blitzing, but is dropping into a hook zone, where he can cover the inside slant from Ervin. Hopkins will run his outside slant route, but he will in effect be bracketed by Jones from the outside and slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard (#21). As you can see, Dennard is simply reading Watson’s eyes … which take him right to the football:
From the end zone angle, you can see how Watson looks right at Hopkins, and misses all the other information he needs to make the right decision here:
Coming out of Clemson, one of the things I liked about Watson was his ability to identify situations pre-snap and exploit them post-snap. However, things in the NFL are not always what they seem, and he’ll need to get faster with his reads and better with his eyes to avoid more mistakes like this.
Working the Field
While studying Watson I did notice that he rarely makes the same mistake twice; an opinion confirmed by O’Brien this week. Later in the game the rookie made perhaps his best throw of the game in a critical situation, during a two-minute drive at the end of the first half that culminated in his scoring scamper. On this play, we got to see the rookie move his eyes all over the field and even use them to influence a defender, creating a much bigger throwing lane.
With the clock ticking down under two minutes remaining in the half, the Texans face a 1st and 10 on their own 31-yard line in a game tied 3-3. This was an impressive drive from Watson, who seemed much more comfortable when Houston used this 20 offensive personnel package, something the Texans returned to later in the game for another critical drive. Here, Watson stands in the shotgun flanked by his running backs, with a slot formation to the right and Hopkins isolated to the left. Cincinnati’s nickel defense shows two-high safeties:
Houston returns to the same exact play they ran on the previous snap, and set up a Spot concept variant to the right, with a Dig/Curl combination on the left. Hopkins runs the big dig route. The Bengals drop into a standard Cover 2 shell, with both safeties dropping deep to take away a potential big play.
On this snap, Watson’s eye work is on point. He takes the snap and first confirms the coverage by checking the safeties:
But the QB does not like the numbers advantage the defense has to that side of the field, with effectively four defenders over three. So he comes weakside next and looks at the dig route as he finishes his drop:
Hopkins still needs time to finish his dig route, but as you can see there will be a spot to throw this, provided the throwing lane is clear. The playside linebacker, Vigil, is standing flat-footed right in the way. So the rookie QB then flashes his eyes to the RB on the curl route, which draw’s Vigil’s attention:
The end zone angle gives us a perfect view of how Watson moves his eyes – and the linebacker. We also see how he makes this throw with anticipation, pulling the trigger before Hopkins truly clears the LB:
Again, Watson has a ways to go before he truly settles into life as an NFL quarterback. His eye work, well, needs work. But while we can assume he will make more mistakes, we can also see that when he’s feeling comfortable, he can use his eyes as a force for good from the pocket as well.