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Who Gets the Blame For Texans Slow Starts In Games?

How much is Deshaun Watson to blame for the Texans' slow starts the last few years?
How much is Deshaun Watson to blame for the Texans' slow starts the last few years?
Photo by Eric Sauseda

Lost in the Texans' 2-6 disaster of a season is one of the oddest statistical paradoxes of my sports watching life, and it's the fact that Deshaun Watson is having, statistically, the best season of his career. At the very least, these last four games (coincidentally, the four games since the firing of you-know-who) represent the first sustained stretch of offensive football that most closely resemble Watson's breakout rookie season, where he set all kinds of records for players in their first six starts.

It's been so good that national pundits and analysts are sitting up and taking notice. Here's Greg Cosell, one of the most respected film dissectors in the business, lauding Watson's individual play:

Hell, even Deshaun HIMSELF thinks this is the best he's played:

Right now, Watson is on pace for 4,752 yards passing, 34 TD passes, and 10 interceptions. Tack on another 396 yards rushing for which he's on pace. It is, far and away, the best individual quarterbacking season in team history. That is IF you can avert your eyes from a 2-6 record. Now, as long as we're just exercising arithmetic, I don't think the Texans are going to finish 4-12. They'll probably finish somewhere around 6-10, maybe 7-9 if the defense can improve somewhat.

It's not easy for Watson to be saddled with a defense that's given up between 28 and 42 points to all the non-Jaguar teams on the schedule. However, if we are looking at offensive output, one area the Texans MUST improve over the second half of the season is on opening drives. Until this past Sunday, going back to the beginning of 2018, in the regular season, the Texans had scored ONE touchdown on an opening drive with Watson at quarterback. In 2020, the Texans had punted on all seven opening possessions this season, with five three and outs.

The good news is that they scored a touchdown on their opening drive on Sunday!

The bad news is that ONE touchdown doubled their opening drive TD output since Week 1 of 2018. So how much of the opening drive underperformance this season, prior to this past Sunday, is Deshaun's fault? Let's look at my notes on the seven opening drives and see (the plays are listed by down and distance, yard line, and shorthand description of the plays):

WEEK 1 - at KC
* 1-10, HOU 25 - David Johnson 5 yards off RT
* 2-5, HOU 30 - Fuller DROP deep left, back shoulder
* 3-5 HOU 30 - Empty, FALSE START on both tackles
* 3-10, HOU 25 - 20 personnel, Tytus Howard completely whiffs on Clark, INC to Duke

VERDICT: NOT Deshaun’s fault.
Fuller's drop on second down was a killer, and both tackles flinching on 3rd and 5 put the Texans on their heels against a pretty good KC pass rush. Howard's whiff of a block on 3rd down was the kill shot.

WEEK 2 - vs BAL
1-10, HOU 25 - David Johnson, 1 yard run off RT, zone read
2-9, HOU 26 - David Johnson, 4 yard run off LT, zone read
3-5, HOU 30 - Jordan Akins 4 yd quick pass left, short of sticks

VERDICT: KIND OF Deshaun’s fault. It's possible that Watson made the wrong read on first run. He probably should have kept the ball. Then throwing short of sticks on 3rd down was suboptimal. He needs to be better than this.

WEEK 3 - at PIT
1-10, HOU 25 - INC to David Johnson, TJ Watt unblocked!
2-10, HOU 25 - David Johnson, 5 yard run off RT
3-5, HOU 30 - INC to Akins on crosser, TIGHT coverage

VERDICT: NOT really Deshaun’s fault
I'm still wondering why exactly T.J. Watt was allowed to take a free run at Watson on the first offensive play of the game. Tight coverage on 3rd down isn't really on Deshaun.

WEEK 4 - vs MIN
1-10, HOU 25 - David Johnson (AWFUL vision) for 2 yd up middle
2-8, HOU 27 - RPO pass to Fells for 6 yards
3-2, HOU 33 - INC to Cobb short middle, double coverage (Cooks wide open on short out route)

VERDICT: YES Deshaun’s fault
This one is the one opening drive failure that was unequivocally on Watson. He did enough to get into 3rd and short, but throwing into double coverage for Randall Cobb with Brandin Cooks wide open is Watson's fault.

WEEK 5 - vs JAX
1-10, HOU 16 - Cooks deep right CATCH for 36 yards!
1-10, JAX 48 - David Johnson, run right, NO GAIN
2-10, JAX 48 - Missile screen left Cooks, empty, 2 yd loss
3-12, 50 - BLITZ, rush 6, Deshaun buried, quick complete to P. Brown

VERDICT: NOT Deshaun’s fault
This drive started out VERY promising, with a deep strike to Cooks on the first play, just one week after Cooks was shut out by the Vikings. The Texans, unfortunately, reverted to their old ways over the next three plays. The offensive line got blown up on all three subsequent plays, not Watson's fault.

WEEK 6 - at TEN
1-10, HOU 20 - David Johnson up middle, Fulton sucks
2-9, HOU 21 - Watson SACKED, Kelemete sucks
3-12, HOU 18 - Fuller crosser, catch and run, 22 yards
1-10, HOU 40 - Empty, INC intended for Fuller, bad throw
2-10 - HOU 40 - David Johnson, 4 yards up middle
3-6, HOU 44 - BLITZ, Deshaun pressured, INC, Kelemete sucks

VERDICT: NOT really Deshaun’s fault
Hey look! Another series that WASN'T a three and out! I think you can tell by how many times I'm saying one of the guards "sucks" in my notes, this was definitely NOT Watson's fault.

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WEEK 7 - vs GB
1-10, HOU 25 - Empty, 5 yard quick left to Fuller
2-5, HOU 30 - David Johnson 4 yards off RG
3-1, HOU 34 - Duke Johnson hand off smothered, Nick Martin sucks

VERDICT: NOT Deshaun’s fault
Watson got his team into a 3rd and short. Unfortunately, when they tried to run Duke Johnson to the left, center Nick Martin got shoved into the backfield, and basically made the tackle on his running back teammate.

So, worst case, maybe two of those seven opening drive failures are on Deshaun's ticket. Outside of that, he just needs better teammates, or for his current teammates to start executing better.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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