Assertions are made on aspects we really don’t know the truth to. Some examples burn stronger and brighter than others. Feelings get in the way of what actually happened. Narratives are fabricated from the shredded remains of previous devious opinions.
After last season, I felt like a high number of the sacks Deshaun Watson took last season weren’t actually because of the offensive line. The last ranking in both pressure rate at 38.7% and adjusted sack rate at 11.5% wasn’t just because of blown blocks, but because of no one being open, big blitzes, offensive line rearranging and poor utilization of talent, and secondary blockers. Sure, the offensive line wasn’t great Bob, but it wasn’t the worst in football.
So I went back to see if what I thought and said was true was actually true. I charted each time Watson was sacked in 2018, all 65 of them, and looked at why Watson was sacked, which position and player was at fault, the number of players protecting and rushing, if play action or a blitz was used, and the impact the play had on the drive itself.
It’s all very scientific and heavily scrutinized by a peer reviewed panel out in Geneva. Like sack# 65 where no one blew a block, but there was overall pressure due to the blitz, and Watson failed to scramble. No one was open. The Texans had six blockers for six rushers.
Or sack# 44 where Senio Kelemete missed his assignment and decided not to block down. Watson was sacked in 1.3 seconds.
Or sack# 38 where Myles Garrett longarmed Juli’en Davenport into another universe and snagged down Watson with one arm. A blown block credited to Davenport.
Or sack#18 where everyone was covered and Watson opted to scramble for the touchdown on 4th and 1. A coverage sack, where the protection did its job.
All 65 of these plays are now located in a spreadsheet that deciphers the data of an entire population. Let’s start with the big one, why Watson was sacked.
This was the monumental reason for doing this, and the results surprised me. 32 of the 65 sacks Wastson took could be attributed to blocking negligence alone—simple blown blocks. Bull rushes, rips, swims, and edge rushes combined to turn the pocket into a warzone of negative plays. In addition to these 32, 10 more could be attributed to the blocking. 5 sacks were because of missed assignments, Kelemete earlier, a player pulling and blocking the wrong defender, etc., and 5 were because of overall pressure. These were plays where blitzes or multiple defenders collapsed the pocket to make things inescapable.
Additionally, there weren’t many empty sacks here. Houston deserved almost all the sacks Watson took. Only 3 were the result of empty and broken plays. The rest were coverage sacks, plays where Watson couldn’t find anywhere to go with the ball. Watson either suffocated in the pocket or was tackled before he could capture positive yards after scrambling for more.
Fault was determined by both player and position group.
Watson was attributed the most blame out of any player. 23 sacks were credited to him. This isn’t entirely fair. Coverage sacks, and free rushers were blamed on him because there was no one else to blame. His number is best read as plays where there wasn’t a blocker who made a mistake.
Aside from blown blocks and the offensive line performance, the biggest reason for the number of sacks was that no one was open. On 49 of the sacks there wasn’t an open receiver for Watson to hit. Everything was covered. No one was schemed open. On 13 of the plays he had an option that he never saw, and on 3 plays the rush was too overwhelming and too fast for anything to open up. Pass protection is more than an offensive line. It’s an ecosystem working together to keep the quarterback clean.
Davenport gave up the most sacks on the team with 11. This looks disastrous at first glance, and it is, it just was at the beginning of the season. Davenport played right tackle until week six against the Dallas Cowboys when he moved back to left tackle, a game Houston allowed only one sack. Davenport allowed five sacks as a right tackle in three weeks before being benched for Kendall Lamm. When he moved to left tackle he allowed only six sacks in twelve games. Of course he would have given up sacks if he played left tackle to start the season, but the right tackle experiment was the enormous reason for his horrendous play.
Numbers tell you what happened. There’s context though. Martinas Rankin allowed eight sacks on 430 offensive snaps. Five of his eight came at left tackle, a position that didn’t seem right for him to play in the pros after college, and in a rookie season where he didn’t even have a training camp because of a foot injury. He allowed three sacks as a guard. The numbers are interesting, and have their merit, but it’s important to keep one eye on all the offensive line mismanagement that occurred last season.
Kendall Lamm was better than anyone thought he would be. He’s one of the worst run blockers in football, but he became a slightly incompetent pass blocker, an extraterrestrial improvement from someone who was a year removed from being the worst pass blocker most of us have ever seen. As the primary starting right tackle he gave up only 6 sacks in 859 offensive snaps, and allowed just as many as Zach Fulton, and one less than Senio Kelemete.
The interior allowed 19 sacks on their own. Greg Mancz, Fulton, Zach Martin, and Kelemete kept things leaky. They had troubles with bullrushes and let the pocket crumble too often. And there were too many troubles with picking up both the looper and the crasher on stunts. All seven of the stunt sacks Houston allowed were because of missed blocks on the interior. Things like this tend to happen when there is this much turnover on the offensive line.
The rest is because of secondary blockers. Running backs and tight ends. Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue both allowed two sacks. Ryan Griffin and Jordan Thomas allowed a combined total of four sacks. This total of 8 was a figure I expected to be higher. Plays like this stick the folds of the brain more than the others. Let’s roll sack# 33.
Here’s the number of blockers and the number of rushers.
On most of the sacks Houston allowed only their offensive line was protecting. 34 to be exact. The average number of blockers they had protecting was 5.73. On 16 sacks they kept in enough blockers to ensure they would have a number advantage. Watson had trouble against the blitz last season. Both the Colts and Browns had success using heavy blitzes to bring Watson down. Yet, only 18 of the 65 sacks saw more than 4 rushers and the defense blitzing. 47 of the sacks came from a basic 3 or 4 man rush.
Teams had success jumping on Houston’s play action passes with stunts and blitzes. When offensive linemen pulled in pass protection a defender would loop back to fill its place and create confusion. That being said, the Texans allowed a sack only 15 times when they ran play action, and 50 of their sacks came without a play fake. Play action is good. Use it. The extra time required to block these passes don’t have the impact you’d assume it would. The chaos created outweighs the delay.
Another interesting number taken from this data is the difference between the number of blockers Houston had, and the number of defenders rushing. Houston allowed only 2 sacks where they had less blockers than pass rushers. But they allowed 26 sacks where they had 2 or more blockers than rushers. This was one of the problems the offense faced. They had to chip and use secondary blockers to help out their offensive line, which limited the number of pass catchers available, but these packages also allowed more sacks than expected. 7 sacks were allowed when they had 3 more blockers than rushers.
Lastly, let’s take a look at the effect these sacks had on the offense itself. The effect is the end result on the same set of downs. For example, if the drive ended with a punt, but Houston converted a first down following the sack, it’s listed as a first down. The number of plays represents what occurred following a sack on the same set of downs.
As long as the quarterback is healthy, and can deal with the pass pressure, the effect the negative play has on the drive itself is the only thing that matters. The sacks killed too many drives for Houston last season. 30 of the sacks turned into a punt, 11 killed promising drives and limited the number of points scored, turnovers occurred on 5 of these sacks or set of downs, and 4 of the drives ended after Houston failed to convert on fourth down. 51 drives careened by sacks is an enormous figure. On 14 of the drives Watson was able to produce some magic and dig Houston out.
The offensive line was the biggest reason why Watson was sacked 65 times, Houston needs additional wide receiver help and health, Bill O’Brien and new offensive coordinator Tim Kelly need to scheme better hot options for Watson, and the sacks taken destroyed too many of Houston’s drives. Houston needs to add offensive line talent, and they need to do a better job managing and coaching the talent they already have. Watson’s development should help with the coverage sacks and failed scrambles, but the route designs need improvement too.
Most importantly, this can’t happen again. The Texans’ offense was severely limited by the number of sacks allowed, and were extrenely fortunate Watson played all 16 games despite the pummeling he took. Limiting the number of sacks and quarterback hits taken, and the lowering the pressure rate should be the Texans’ primary offensive goal this offseason.