The task for this week was simple: Explain how the Houston Texans became the hottest team in football.
After an 0-3 start to the season, the Texans have reeled off nine consecutive victories, placing them firmly in the mix for a first-round bye in the AFC. There's been a number of reasons for that success, including a defense that ranks third in points allowed and fourth in takeaways.
But more than anything, it's impossible to ignore what quarterback Deshaun Watson is doing. While other young pivots like Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Dak Prescott, and Carson Wentz are grabbing headlines, Watson's growth and maturation are flying under the radar. The second-year QB is making things happen despite coming off ACL surgery, playing behind an offensive line that's seen its share of struggles, and losing receiver Will Fuller to a season-ending injury.
During the pre-draft process last year, one of the knocks on Watson was arm strength, which was fueled in part by a 49-mph throw at the combine. Many people focused on that number and ignored the fact that Watson had consistently used touch, timing, and placement to deliver on deeper balls at Clemson. The skeptics contended that he wouldn't complete them against NFL coverages and tighter throwing lanes.
They were wrong.
In the box score, this throw went for 17 yards, but the ball traveled much farther than that - from the left hash mark of Cleveland's 39-yard line to the right sideline at the 14-yard line.
The throw also required Watson to drop the ball over the underneath defender but away from the safety over the top - a difficult combination of velocity and trajectory. Oh, and he needed to do all that while sliding away from his target before releasing the pass. It's something you expect to see from a veteran quarterback, rather than one who's playing in his first full NFL season.
Another pre-draft concern with Watson was his processing speed. During the course of a play - which usually lasts just a few seconds - quarterbacks must digest a ton of information, process it quickly, and make the right decision. Plus, all of that must happen while large humans strive to cause them bodily harm. At Clemson, Watson displayed flashes of processing ability, but also tossed 17 interceptions during his junior year before leaving. And there were moments during his rookie season when he locked eyes onto the first read or seemed slow when trying to diagnose a coverage rotation.
This season, there's been progress and flashes of something special. In the example below, Houston faces a second-and-11 against Cleveland. The Texans line up with Watson in the shotgun, three receivers to the right, and Hopkins to the left (red arrow). This is the play design:
The Texans are employing a three-level read on the right side, commonly referred to as a "sail" concept. There's a deep ("go") route on the boundary, an intermediate out pattern, and a short option in the flat. Meanwhile, Hopkins is running a backside post.
Before the snap, there's a single deep safety in the middle of the field, and another down near the box. This indicates that Cleveland is running either a Cover 1 or Cover 3. If it turns out to be Cover 3 (the outside cornerbacks dropping deep), the go route would open up the sideline for the out patterns. If it's Cover 1 (everyone playing man coverage except the high safety), the same thing would happen downfield, while the out patterns would be running away from their defenders.
However, neither of those take place, as Cleveland rotates into a Cover 2 at the last second. That means both outside linebackers drop off the line of scrimmage into underneath zones, and the safety in the box drops back as well. Based on the new coverage, this becomes a "middle of the field open" look between the two deep safeties. That means the backside post route to Hopkins is the play, instead of the shorter sideline routes.
Watson diagnoses this coverage on the fly, and then makes an anticipation throw around the dropping middle linebacker (yellow circle) to the post route:
By watching this play from the end-zone angle, you can see Watson "throw the receiver open." He leads Hopkins to the open spot in the zone, releasing the ball before the WR even clears the linebacker underneath him:
Again, this is special.
As mentioned earlier, Watson struggled with his eye work and manipulation during college, which extended into his rookie year. Too often, he'd lock onto his primary read and fail to manipulate defenders away from it. But it's another skill he's improved this season, which we'll highlight in the following play against the Browns. Here, the Texans run a mirrored passing concept, which puts a deep out and a short flat route on both sides of the field:
The Browns show (and stay in) a Cover 1 look before the snap. Watson wants to throw one of the deeper out routes, but he needs to keep the safety - who's responsible for both sides of the field - from getting there in time to help. Watch as Watson first opens up and looks to the right side, briefly freezing the safety, before finding Hopkins along the left sideline:
Last year, Watson would have locked onto Hopkins immediately and led the safety to the football. Instead, the maturing QB gives his star receiver a one-on-one matchup and an opportunity to make the catch over the cornerback.
Finally, there's Watson's trump card - his athleticism. His growth as a pocket passer is making him an all-around quarterback, but his special physical traits enable him to change any game in the blink of an eye:
In the play above against Tennessee in Week 12, the Texans lead by 10 and are looking for the knockout blow. They try to run a play-action boot concept to the right, but immediate pressure prevents Watson from rolling outside. He quickly adapts and turns into a runner, outracing the bulk of the defense for a 34-yard gain up the middle. The ability to deliver on plays like this - which could go for a loss with a less mobile quarterback - is yet another reason that Watson's so tough to defend.
It's impossible to win nine consecutive NFL games without contributions from the entire roster, but Watson's growth in his second pro season is the biggest factor for the hottest team in the league.