For opponents, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson can be frustration in a football jersey. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys, who watched the 23-year-old rack up 415 yards in an overtime victory in October. Or the Indianapolis Colts, who allowed 416 the previous week. The Giants watched him total 421 the game before that.
The Washington Redskins have fared well against mobile quarterbacks, but Watson will bring a slightly different dynamic to FedEx Field on Sunday. Both Carolina’s Cam Newton and Dak Prescott of the Cowboys were kept in relative check despite a purposeful focus on running backs Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott.
Watson, who after an 0-3 start has led Houston to six straight victories and first place in the AFC South, is another story.
“He’s got a skill set that is very dangerous inside the pocket and outside the pocket,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said. “It’s just how you want to defend him, not to mention, he’s got a heck of a weapon out there in Hop [DeAndre Hopkins]. Adding Demaryius Thomas helps them on the other side. [They are a] tough team to defend.
"They do a good job with the play-actions, the shot plays, and on third downs, they’re an excellent team because of the threat to run. Anytime you play a two-man or man [coverage], you’ve got to worry about him running. But he’s doing a great job for a young quarterback, for any quarterback, for that matter. His ability to run in the pocket, run outside the pocket and pass in the pocket is extraordinary.”
Watson has thrown for 2,389 yards and 17 touchdowns with seven interceptions and a 64.9 completion percentage during his sophomore season. His 268 rushing yards are the fourth-most by a quarterback, though, more like Aaron Rodgers, Watson scrambles with the intention of buying time and finding the open receiver. This is in contrast to many fleet-footed quarterbacks who want to run downfield soon as the pocket breaks down.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has been impressed by the way Watson reads coverages in just his second year, but said the ability to feel the pressure coming is his best trait. Many players don’t have that innate instinct to know when the rush is coming without having to drop their eyes and look for it. That allows a quarterback to maximize his time reading the coverage and waiting for a receiver to come out of his break instead of bailing out of the pocket early to start a scramble drill.
“[Mobile quarterbacks] always elude defenders and are able to escape and buy time for their wide receivers to get open,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “Those plays where you break and jailhouse scramble, a minimal gain turns into a big gain just because he can break through the line or a tackle and stay behind the line of scrimmage and deliver the ball to a broke-off route by a receiver. That is always a big deal and we have to be aware of that.
“Then on third downs we have to break people’s backs and not let them get an extra chance by [an] escaping quarterback.”
The Texans’ offense also feature Hopkins, who may be the most the most physically gifted wideout in the league. The two-time Pro Bowler’s 894 receiving yards ranks No. 4 in the league and he’s made an assortment of acrobatic, awe-inspiring catches over the years. Thomas was brought in before the trade deadline to help a receiving corps that lost speedster Will Fuller to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Thomas has the route-running smarts of a veteran, but doesn’t possess the pure over-the-top speed of Fuller.
Houston has weapons on the outside, but Watson is the one that makes everything go on offense. The Texans are 9-6 with Watson as a starter since drafting him No. 12 overall before last season. They finished the 2017 season 1-8 after he was lost to a torn ACL.
That combination of a passing threat with home-run rushing ability puts defenses in an awkward spot of having to decide on playing zone or having a spy so the middle of the field isn’t left wide open, but that also alters the coverage elsewhere.
“We’ve got to try to confuse him early,” Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger said. “When he does take it down, he has wiggle. Cam and Dak, they don’t have the wiggle like he does. He has more of the Michael Vick wiggle. He’s not as fast as Michael Vick, but he has that wiggle and it’s tough.”