The Texans have rattled off eight wins in a row, which is extraordinary in and of itself. That they’ve done it after starting the season 0-3, with quarterback Deshaun Watson coming off ACL surgery in just his second season as a pro, is all the more impressive. They’re also doing it with Watson playing behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. And yet: A team that looked like it was headed for the shitter now finds itself two games up in the AFC South and in position for the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. It’s a credit to Watson and to how he’s being used, along with a solid defense. It’s also a glimpse at what the Texans can do when they’re actually healthy.
Watson has been pressured on 43.2 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus—more than any QB in the league. He’s had to scramble 44 times—18 percent more frequently than any other quarterback. Some of that is because Watson at times can be too eager to tuck the ball, but a lot of it is because he’s frequently had to run for his life. He’s been sacked 37 times, the NFL’s third-highest total, while playing behind an O-line that ranks 31st in adjusted sack rate. He also ranks third among QBs with 345 rushing yards.
Head coach Bill O’Brien, who runs the offense, has made good use of running back Lamar Miller—and not just by handing Miller the ball 15.7 times per game. Miller is eighth in the league with 773 rushing yards, and he averages 4.9 yards per carry. He’s only been targeted 26 times in the passing game, but it’s where he tends to line up that has made him most effective: Analyst Warren Sharp loves to hammer away at the fact that NFL teams have greater success when throwing out of sets with one or two receivers, as opposed to this decade’s dominant trend of three or more WRs. And the Texans are among the teams that do this: Sharp’s data shows that they’ve run 42 percent of their plays out of a “12” personnel grouping—one running back, two tight ends, two receivers—even though they lack a standout pass-catching tight end. But they’ve also, per PFF, positioned Miller either in the slot or out wide on 11 percent of his snaps. It’s not the frequency with which the Saints’ Alvin Kamara (24.7 percent) or the Patriots’ James White (20 percent) lines up as a receiver, but it’s right around what the Rams do with Todd Gurley (12.4 percent). In other words, Miller can sometimes also stress a defense without having to touch the ball, simply by presenting a potential mismatch on the outside.
Wideout DeAndre Hopkins is unquestionably Watson’s biggest target, with 31.3 percent of Watson’s passes coming his way. Also:
After losing Will Fuller for the year with a torn ACL, the Texans swung a trade at the deadline to acquire veteran wideout Demaryius Thomas, who caught his first two touchdowns during Monday night’s win over the Titans. On the first one, Hopkins had drawn a double team, but Watson immediately recognized that and zipped the ball to Thomas, who was in single coverage. Thomas ran an out route out of the right slot, and Watson expertly delivered the ball before he made his break:
Watson dangerously took 20 hits (10 in the pocket, 10 on runs) in a Week 5 victory against the Cowboys, only to get hit 14 times a week later against the Bills. But that’s right when Texans began structuring things to take some of the burden off him. As Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated noted, Watson has only been hit in the pocket 14 times in his last five games.
One thing Watson (or the play-calling, or both) did to address things was to throw shorter passes. During the season’s first six games, per PFF, Watson averaged 14.1 passes per game that traveled at least 10 yards through the air. In the five games since, he has thrown an average of 7.4 such passes. Which is not to say he’s become a check-down artist: According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Watson’s average intended air yards is 9.0, which ranks seventh in the league. And his average completed air yards (7.0) is good for fifth. Watson has also thrown deep (20 yards or more) on 11.5 percent of his dropbacks, according to PFF. That’s 10th-most in the league.
According to Orr, Miller has taken on some of the burden by averaging 100.4 rushing yards per game since Week 7. And Watson has seen pressure on just 36.7 percent of his dropbacks in that span—the eighth-most in the league, per PFF.
The Texans are really holding it down on defense, where they’re finally healthy. They were a disaster last year, when end J.J. Watt and edge rusher Whitney Mercilus missed most of the season with injuries. This year, Watt, Mercilus, and end Jadeveon Clowney have missed one game between them. The Texans have 34 sacks—two more than they had all of last season—and they’re third in defensive DVOA. They blitz a lot—31.2 percent of all pass plays, per PFF, which is eight-most in the NFL—and while they’ve only generated pressure 40.9 percent of the time (which ranks 22nd), they’ve been effective as a unit by giving up just 6.09 pass yards per play (fifth-best) and 18.4 first downs per game (tied for fourth). The addition of safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency has also helped to shore up their secondary.
There’s been a consistency to the Texans’ game this year, too. Their three early-season losses were by a total of 15 points, and Football Outsiders has them ranked first in variance, which measures the fluctuation of their weekly DVOA performance. Their past schedule ranks 26th in DVOA, and with the Colts being their only remaining opponent with a winning record, their future schedule ranks 27th. They’re the Texans, so it’s still difficult to think of them as a genuine threat in what looks like an intensely competitive AFC. But it’s shaping up that way.