RSP contributor Mark Schofield illustrates how the Texans can help quarterback Deshaun Watson continue his development and maximize his talent.
Indulge me for a moment, dear reader, and recall the 2018-2019 NFL season and the 2019 draft cycle.
Last year Houston Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times. As a result, the Texans entered the draft last spring desperately needing help along the offensive line to protect their young signal-caller.
They addressed the offensive line with two early selections, drafting offensive tackle Tytus Howard out of Alabama State in the first round and then selecting guard Max Scharping in the second round.
Prior to the start of the 2019 campaign, they also traded for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, acquiring him from the Miami Dolphins.
But as an organization—and an offense—you need to do more than just add bodies upfront when it comes to protecting your quarterback. You need to help him schematically as well.
Bill O’Brien has done that this season, in part by turning to some spread formations.
At a glance that might sound counter-intuitive. After all, why not get heavy and bigger in terms of personnel and add numbers upfront to protect your QB?
The Texans implement a lot of heavy formations and maximum protection concepts such as the Yankee Concept. But they also have been spreading the formation out—and spreading the defense out—using some empty formations. This has allowed Watson to get the ball out quickly and exploit potential holes in the defense that he identifies in the pre-snap phase.
The empty formations give Watson a good look at the defense, allowing him to find and exploit potential bubbles or cushions that he can identify pre-snap. On this 2nd and 8 against the Atlanta Falcons, the Texans empty the backfield again and put Watson (#4) in the shotgun. DeAndre Hopkins (#10) is in a stack-slot formation to the left:
Take note of the coverage over Hopkins. Atlanta shows a Cover 4 alignment pre-snap with a safety giving Hopkins a ton of cushion. Watson spots this before the play, and comes right to Hopkins on a quick post route that the QB throws with pretty good timing and anticipation:
Again, the ball comes out quickly, protects the quarterback, and allows him to exploit a weakness in the coverage identified before the play.
Here is one more example of this at work. On this play against the Panthers, Houston empties the backfield once more. Will Fuller (#15) is in the slot to the left, and will run a slant route:
As you can see, Fuller’s slant route takes him into another soft area of the coverage, in front of the safety and between two underneath defenders. Watson sees that as well, and comes right to Fuller almost immediately after the snap:
Another thing that Houston has done with these empty formations is to create some rub concepts for Watson’s receivers. On this 2nd and 10 against the Chargers, Watson aligns alone in the shotgun and the Texans have three receivers to the left side of the formation:
Los Angeles brings pressure here, sending five after Watson and using a mirrored tackle-end stunt. But the Texans still have five in to block, so the QB has time to get the ball out. He looks to the right, where a rub concept frees up Darren Fells (#87) on a quick slant:
Here is a similar design against the Carolina Panthers. Houston goes empty again and puts Keke Coutee (#16) in a stack slot to the right behind Hopkins. Hopkins releases vertically, while Coutee runs a simple curl route. The vertical release – plus the attention paid to Hopkins – creates space for his teammate on the curl route:
Speaking of rub concepts, it has been said before that the NFL is a copycat league. The Texans certainly were copycats last week against the Kansas City Chiefs. If you look back to last year’s AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots relied on rub concepts and stack slot formations to free up wide receiver Julian Edelman on their game-winning drive in overtime. The Chiefs simply had no answer for such designs.
This is something that O’Brien turned to help his quarterback early against Kansas City:
And often, to close out the game:
Those are four examples from one game—including three in the closing minutes—of Houston using these designs to create space for Hopkins/Fuller and give Watson easy throws. On each of these, Watson is able to get the ball out quickly and avoid pressure impacting the play.
We often think about adding talent and bodies to help a quarterback, especially when it comes to protecting the passer in the pocket. But as Houston is showing, sometimes schematic elements can be just as effective. Yes, Watson is still getting hit and sacked above the league average, but this offense is doing a much better job of protecting him when contrasted with a year ago, and is driven by these schematic influences.
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