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The Film Room: Deshaun Watson And The Texans’ Run Game

Houston’s offense is finally worth watching again.

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texan Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Since 2014, the Texans’ offense has been a banal trudge. They were a talented team severely limited by their quarterback play and a complicated offense that suffocated trying to cross the twenty point barrier. During those days, it was time to lift the toilet seat, check on meat, talk about the weather, look up and listen to the clicking of the ceiling fan, to think about the passing of time and all the life being wasted away watching Houston’s offense. Now, thanks to one play and two games, the Houston Texans’ offense is worth watching again because of rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson.

One of the most dramatic effects Watson has had on the Texans’ offense is in the run game. No longer is Houston a team that runs the ball up the middle and then changes things up by running the ball up the middle again. The run game is a jungle of options now. There are outside zones, quarterback draws, zone reads, options, and darts, all joined by that beloved inside zone play.

This all stems from Watson’s athletic ability. Out of all the quarterbacks in the 2017 NFL Draft, he finished in the top five in five NFL Combine events: 40 yd dash, vertical leap, broad jump, and three cone. He finished tied for sixth in the 20 yard shuttle. Watson is a natural athlete. He can run in a straight line really fast. He can move laterally really fast. He can jump high. He can jump far. On the field, he can do things like run 49 yards for a touchdown, or dip and dodge out of five tackles before dumping the ball off for a 31 yard gain to convert a 1st and 20.

These plays in the passing game benefit the run game. It keeps Houston out of long distance downs. Situations like 2nd and 12 or 3rd and 10 are rarely seen because Watson turns negative plays into neutral or positive plays. Pressures become scrambles that lead to dump-offs or five yard runs. Sacks become slippery snake escapes and tosses out of bounds. As a result, the Texans have their entire playbook open on almost every down.

Compared to last year, Houston has gone from running in two dimensions to running in three since Deshaun Watson took over at starting quarterback.

Texans Run Distribution

2016 7.00% 10.40% 60.30% 6.20% 10.57%
2017 8.30% 17.40% 49.20% 18.18% 6.06%

In 2016, the Texans focused primarily on running the ball between the tackles, directly through inside zone plays or indirectly because of poor edge blocking that forced the running backs to cut inside rather than get around the edge. 60.3% of the team’s runs came over the center and guard. Lamar Miller saw his percentage jump from the 49.3% he had in Miami to 63% last season. This was one reason why 2016 turned Miller from an artillery shell into a party popper. Since Week Two (Watson’s first start), Houston has run the ball up the middle only 49.2% of the time. They have increased running over the left tackle from 10.4% to 17.4%, and over right tackle from 6.2% to 18.18%. This shift in playcalling is one of the many geysers blasting out of the pool Watson has cannonballed into.

Even when running plays that Watson doesn’t have a direct effect on, he still affects the offense indirectly. Since Week One’s disaster against the Jaguars, the Texans made a commitment to protect the passer. Chris Clark, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Jeff Allen, and Breno Giacomini are all negative pass blockers. To help their young quarterback, Houston has used a variety of formations.

Here, Houston has one tight end left. Watson is in the pistol, which gives him space while also shrinking the time it takes to hand the ball off. Miller is lined up behind him. Tight end Stephen Anderson is an off-set right fullback. The Texans have loved using Andersen as a dump-off target for Watson. This formation sets Anderson up as the last read, and it also allows him to chip outside rushers before seeping out to the flat or to block inside rushers for the entirety of the drop back.

It’s first and ten. This isn’t a pass play. The Texans are running a dart play left against New England’s 3-4 front. Ryan Griffin (#84) is blocking the outside linebacker on his own and trying to shield him from the inside. Left tackle Chris Clark (#74) and left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (#71) have a strong double team to the play-side inside linebacker. Center Nick Martin (#66) is blocking the nose guard. Right guard Greg Mancz is blocking down on the defensive tackle. “Fullback” Anderson is stepping into the inside gap and fanning out wide to seal the edge. Right tackle Breno Giacomini (#68) is the dart. He’s pulling to the first man in the hole.

At the snap, the inside linebacker blitzes. Su’a-Filo flees from getting hip to hip with Clark and leaves for the linebacker. The end goal of the double team comes right to them. Both down blocks are perfect. Martin and Mancz each have their head on the inside shoulder to prevent the defensive linemen from pursuing the ball carrier.

When Miller gets the ball, he has an enormous hole between the tackle and tight end with Giacomini leading the way. Yet Giacomini is confused. The blitzing linebacker takes him off his course. He’s too close to the line of scrimmage. His path is muddled and requires maneuvering. If he gets in front of Miller and blocks the safety, Miller has an open run through the ‘C’ gap.

Miller doesn’t wait. He plants and cuts outside immediately. Giacomini is stuck behind Clark. He can’t get to the safety before he can make a play on Miller.

The safety fills the hole. Miller can either be tackled for a three yard gain if he heads up the middle or he can bounce the run outside.

He cuts outside. The only drawback here is that it negates Griffin’s block. He did his job. But when Miller cuts outside, the defensive end can run off his block easily. Griffin does the right thing by letting go.

Miller easily outruns the edge defender coming off the block. Although it rarely happened in 2016, Miller is finally free and where he belongs, sprinting through an open meadow.

There is another layer hidden in the folds of this play. The threat of Watson running keeps the linebacker in place, leading to Anderson blocking no one. It’s an extra wrinkle to a play that usually doesn’t have one. Bill O’Brien has begun manufacturing these extra layers to strengthen his offense.

This is a 3rd and 1 run. Houston is running outside zone left. They are leaving the backside defensive end unblocked. The rules are the same as always: If the defensive end crashes down, keep it. If he sits, hand it off.

New England spent the majority of this game sitting, as they don’t want to let Watson sprint around the edge. The Patriots choose instead to put the ball in the running backs’ hands. This play is no different. The defensive end sits. The offensive line takes care of the double ‘A’ gap showing linebackers. D’Onta Foreman lowers his shoulder and runs for the first.

Last year Houston was forced to block every defender in the box. They faced an average of 6.29 defenders in the box, which was ninth in the NFL. By running plays like this, and because of Watson’s ability as a runner, it allows the offense to ignore edge defenders and run at heavy boxes without facing a disadvantage.

No play depicts this better than the red zone option run used to get Miller an easy touchdown in last Sunday’s rout of the Titans. The Texans chewed Tennessee up in the red zone by spreading things out. Here the Texans are in the pistol and 1x0x4 personnel. The Titans countered by blitzing out of a nickel package and bringing the safety into the box to cover Lamar Miller. Houston is blocking like it’s an outside zone play left. Watson is reading the left edge defender, Brian Orakpo (#98), who’s standing up. Because of the play design, Houston is still able to have an advantage even when it’s five blockers versus seven defenders.

The offensive line is beautiful here. They all reach the outside shoulder and nobody allows penetration that could kill this play. Orakpo is unblocked with two players to defend.

Orakpo shuffles wide. He doesn’t commit to either yet. He is limiting the hole Watson can cut through, and he stays in position to make a play on Miller. Watson’s job here is to make Orakpo commit.

Watson doesn’t keep running wide or incorrectly cut inside to fill his cup with all of the glory. He runs at Orakpo. The defender is forced to make a choice. Sit longer and allow Watson cut inside to score, or come up and try to tackle Watson. Orkapo chooses to attack the quarterback. The ball is flipped wide.

Miller has a bathroom to play baseball in and scores one of the easiest touchdowns he ever will in his little life.

So far teams have been sitting on Watson, containing him, forcing him to give the ball to the running back. Over time, defenses will start to commit more to the running backs, which will open up even more runs for the quarterback.

Among all the options and choices designed into the majority of the run plays called is some good old manifest destiny. This is a draw play on 3rd and 1. Houston has 1x2x2 personnel. Despite this, the Patriots are in a dime package. It’s a consequence of all the chipping and routes run by the tight ends, Ryan Griffin and Stephen Andersen, out of a tight receiver formation. This time, Griffin is faking a seam route before blocking the safety. Andersen is running an out route.

On the offensive line, the Texans have two double teams between the guards and tackles. They show pass to get the defenders up field, help until the tackle takes over the block, and then toss the defender outside before going to the second level. Both blocks take the defensive linemen where they are naturally moving. Center Nick Martin is by himself against nose tackle Malcom Brown (#90).

The offensive line snaps out of their stance and shows off their numbers. This gets the pass rushers up field and gets those in coverage moving backwards.

Watson helps sell the pass, too. He stares right at the outside wide receiver, Bruce Ellington. This pulls the linebacker Elandon Roberts (#52) into his deep middle zone, opening the center of the field.

Once Su’a-Filo clears the defensive tackle out wide, he heads to the second level. Against this defensive formation, without a clear defender in the second level, XSF just looks for whatever comes his way. Lined up at defensive end, Kyle Van Noy (#54) loops around to him.

The timing here is perfect. Everything clicks in place. When Watson plants his foot to run, he has two blockers in front of him and the entire center of the field open.

Watson only needs a single yard. He could easily follow through the intended ‘A’ gap and pick up the first. Instead, he picks up more. Brown is blocked by Martin and can’t make a tackle. He still affects the play by pushing Martin inside and shrinking the hole. Watson then cuts around Martin’s block.

Watson breaks Brown’s arm tackle. Su’a-Filo gets enough of Van Noy to toss him away from Watson. The quarterback then cuts back inside away from Van Noy and back to where the play was originally designed to go.

From there, Watson breaks another arm tackle. The third one he is able to scrub from the play like apricot.

Most importantly, Watson slips under Devin McCourty’s head-leading tackle. Despite all the running he does, Watson doesn’t take big hits. He skips out of tackles, leaps out of others, and slides at the last second to skip out on the punishment.

3rd and 1, but Houston picks up seven thanks to a formation that spreads New England out, good blocking, and Watson’s vision to turn one yard into seven.

It’s amazing what talent can do. Deshaun Watson has revolutionized this offense. He has energized this entire team and fanbase. Things I thought we would never see under Bill O’Brien—players out in space, easy yards created, multiple options in the run game—are all here. All of the bellyaching of the past is gone. There is no more whining about who’s playing quarterback, the playcalling, or O’Brien being the head coach and offensive coordinator.

By changing his offense and utilizing Watson’s athleticism, the Texans are a completely different team than they have ever been before. For a team that has been a quarterback and an offense away for the last three seasons, that should be a terrifying thought for the rest of the NFL.