As the Patriots get ready to face Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans Sunday night, Bill Belichick might want to pump a Beatles song throughout the hallways of Gillette Stadium all week:
Watson, the third-year quarterback, is one of the best deep-ball passers in the NFL. His 21 completions this year of throws that travel at least 21 yards in the air are tied for second-most. And he is tied for fifth in the league with nine completions of at least 40 yards — about one per game.
In last week’s win over Indianapolis, Watson had completions of 30 (touchdown), 35 (touchdown), 44, and 51 yards. And the Patriots know all about Watson’s big-play ability: In the 2017 matchup, a 36-33 Patriots win, Watson had completions of 29 (touchdown), 31, 34, and 35 yards.
Watson and his three big-play receivers — DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Kenny Stills — can get downfield in a hurry. The Texans are fifth in the NFL in yards per play (6.01).
“They all have a lot of production there, especially Fuller and Stills,” Belichick said. “Stills is one of the most explosive players in the league in terms of big plays the last three or four years. These guys can turn a 5-yard pass into a 50-yard touchdown — exactly what happened in the Atlanta game. It was a little out route, Watson scrambled, Fuller turned it up, 50-yard touchdown.
“They can score in a hurry.”
The Patriots were caught flat-footed in 2017, when Watson passed for 301 yards and nearly pulled off the upset at Gillette Stadium in just his second career start. They fared much better in 2018, holding Watson to 176 yards — one completion over 20 yards — in a 27-20 win, though it was Watson’s first game back from a torn ACL.
But they know that stopping the deep ball will be a big task again Sunday night. And Watson can beat you deep in a number of ways.
If the defense is playing single high safety, forget it. The Texans will simply run a deep vertical play down the sideline, too far away from the safety, like last week against the Colts. Watson threw a perfect 44-yard pass to Fuller down the left sideline, and another perfect 30-yard touchdown down the left sideline to Hopkins.
The Texans also love to run deep double-crossers with their receivers, forcing the safety to choose a side. Whichever receiver he doesn’t pick, that’s where Watson goes with the ball, as on his 33-yard touchdown to Fuller against the Falcons in Week 5.
And Watson can improvise with the best of them — buying time with his feet and having his receiver break off his route and head downfield, as on the play Belichick mentioned above. Fuller ran a 5-yard out route, but saw no coverage behind him, broke upfield, and Watson hit him for a 44-yard touchdown.
“Any time he gets out in space, it’s a problem,” Belichick said. “Usually when he scrambles, he has space to pull up and throw. He’s not scrambling into traffic; he rarely does that. Once he gets out on the move, he has plenty of time to survey the field and make a good decision and throw it in there.”
Watson is having a solid season, ranked in the top 10 in passer rating (103.4), yards per game (263.5), yards per attempt (8.03), touchdown passes (20), and completion percentage (69.0). Watson stands tall in the face of a pass rush, isn’t afraid to take a hit, and will escape a pass rush to both sides, not just to his right.
He also gets plenty of help from a balanced attack; the Texans have the 10th-most rushes, and are 21st in pass attempts. And running back Carlos Hyde is also having a fantastic season, rushing for 836 yards on 4.8 yards per attempt.
Watson always looks to pass first, and is most dangerous when he is improvising. But of course, he is a threat when running the ball, as well. In his two previous matchups with the Patriots, Watson had eight rushes for 41 yards and eight rushes for 40 yards. This year, he has 301 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 5.2 yards per attempt.
And when Watson’s receivers are covered, he has plenty of speed to pick up first downs or touchdowns. This may be a big week for Jamie Collins or even Jonathan Jones in a spying role.
But Watson can be had, too. He can be sloppy with the ball, and takes some bad chances, as in the Week 7 loss to the Colts. After dancing around in the pocket to find an open receiver, Watson made an ill-advised throw off his back foot, all the way across the field, and the pass was easily picked off.
Watson sometimes reverts to bad throwing fundamentals. On a fourth-and-3 play last Thursday against the Colts, Watson had a clean pocket and plenty of time, yet instead of stepping up and making a throw, he moved back and to his left, throwing awkwardly off his back foot for no good reason. The pass fell incomplete, and could have been intercepted.
And Watson sometimes dances too much. He has taken 32 sacks this year, the fifth-most in the NFL, and it’s not just because of poor offensive line play. Two weeks ago, the Ravens seemingly weren’t trying to sack Watson, just trying to contain him in the pocket. Yet they still wound up with six sacks thanks to Watson holding onto the ball for too long.
I wouldn’t expect the Patriots to blitz very much — and if they do, it will be four-man zone blitzes in an attempt to confuse Watson and goad him into bad throws. Containing him in the pocket will be important, putting Kyle Van Noy and John Simon in the hot seat again on the edge, as they were against the Cowboys and Ravens.
The Patriots had better not play much single high safety, because Watson and the Texans will kill them with deep crossers and sideline fades. This might be a good game for the Belichick staple of using his top cornerback (Stephon Gilmore) on the opponent’s No. 2 receiver (Fuller), and double-teaming the top receiver (Hopkins).
And using the linebackers and safeties about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage seems important, given Watson’s penchant for not always reading the coverage and making risky throws across the field.
The Patriots proved last year that they can slow down Watson and the Texans. But all it takes is one or two slipups, and Watson can burn you deep down the field in a hurry.