Behind Enemy Lines: Texans' Watson will be a problem

Garrett Chapman
October 04, 2019 - 9:26 am
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson

© Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

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After one of the most disappointing losses in recent memory, the Atlanta Falcons (1-3) are back on the road for the fifth week of the NFL season. They travel to Houston to take on the Texans (2-2) for their third consecutive AFC South opponent.

The season is still in its early stages, and anything can still happen, but the Falcons have to show improvement if they want to salvage their season. The talent is there, but the words are starting to get stale. If their fortunes are to change, it has to happen sooner rather than later.

Is this the week that it all turns around for Atlanta? Get my thoughts on this week’s matchup, and see what I think will happen:

Offense

The engine of Bill O’Brien’s offense relies on balance between the rushing and passing attack, but his driver is Deshaun Watson. When the young, athletic quarterback is able to effectively distribute the ball, the offense lights up. When he struggles, the offense struggles with him. That has been perfectly evident in their first four games.

Against the Chargers and Colts, Watson threw for a combined 619 yards, six touchdowns, and one interception while completing 76.5 percent of his passes. In these contests, the offense averaged a solid 27.5 points per game.

Against the Jaguars and Panthers, Watson threw for a combined 319 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions while completing 59.6 percent of his passes. In those, the offense averaged a miserable 11.5 points. Ironically, the Texans are 1-1 in both of those coupling of games.

So, it’s clear that they are capable of winning games when the offense doesn’t pick up any steam. This is what makes the Texans so interesting. They are capable of beating you in both a shootout and in a grind-it-out game.

If you’re looking for the common theme in their two losses, look no further than the play of the offensive line. In those games, the Texans have surrendered 12 sacks. In their two wins they only surrendered six. Now, are they bad enough for the Falcons to actually have success against them? That is the $12.8 million question.

This is a similarly suspect offensive line that the Falcons went up against last week in which they generated no sacks. The Falcon’s pass rush is due for a big game and the defense needs for them to deliver on Sunday.

Sacking Watson is important for two reasons: Obviously it takes plays away from the offense and puts it behind the chains. But more importantly it keeps the ball out of the hands of DeAndre Hopkins. If Julio Jones weren’t in the NFL, he would be the best receiver in football. Don’t let his slow start to the season fool you. If Hopkins gets going, he is nearly impossible to stop. The Falcons have shown a propensity to get beat by their opponents’ best skill players this season. That can’t happen on Sunday.

Like I said before, O’Brien prefers a balanced attack. The other side of that equation has been solid for most of the year. In fact, with Watson running for his life for much of the game against Carolina, the rushing attack was the only piece of the offense that seemed to show up. After losing Lamar Miller to an ACL injury, the Texans found themselves scrambling for running backs to start the year. Now led by Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson, it’s safe to say they are doing just fine without him.

Hyde will take the lion’s share of carries, but Johnson is one of the premier pass-catching backs in the league. Alone, neither will blow you away, but they are an effective duo. Outside of the poor rushing performance against the Chargers, the Texans have averaged nearly 150 yards per game. Houston’s running back duo gives O’Brien the balance he craves.

Defense

Looking at this defense, what jumps out the most is the way they get after the quarterback. Led by J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, the defense has 13 sacks and a league-leading eight forced fumbles. In fact, the defense secured Houston’s only touchdown of the game against the Panthers with a Watt strip-sack.

The pressure doesn’t come down to the play of these two either as seven different players have tallied a sack. The Texans will come after Atlanta with relentless pressure, especially after the way the Titans were able to get after Matt Ryan last week. Add in the fact that Jamon Brown and Alex Mack have not participated in practice this week. Even if those two are able to go, I don’t see how Atlanta will slow down the Texans’ pass rush.

Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney lead a sound group of swarming linebackers. They tackle well and are often mixed into the pass rush with disguised blitzes. As a group, they defend the tight end pretty well, having not allowed more than 40 yards to anyone from that position. While they haven’t played a tight end at the caliber of Austin Hooper, it should be noted that they held a very good player in Greg Olsen to two catches and only 5 yards.

As a unit, they have struggled defending running backs that are able to contribute in the passing game. They have allowed over 250 yards to that position and Devonta Freeman has the potential to hurt them here.

Speaking of Freeman, the Texans’ defense is pretty good against the run, too. The unit ranks 16th in the league, allowing just over 100 yards per game. In fairness to the Texans, they have played two pretty good running backs in Austin Ekler and Leonard Fournette. The other two, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara, are unquestionably elite. With the quality of their opposition being considered, this unit comes off as much better than how they appear at first glance.

The Falcons have struggled immensely in generating a running game. Freeman has accounted for a mere 157 yards on the ground. Don’t expect that to get much higher this week against the Texans.

If the Texans have a deficiency on defense, it comes in their pass coverage. Even after playing two rookie quarterbacks, this unit is still giving up an average of 259 yards per game, surrendering five touchdowns. That isn’t good, but let’s take the stat dive a little further.

The No. 1 receivers on each team (one being Christian McCaffrey) have absolutely shredded them. To this point, they have been gashed for nearly 450 yards on 40 receptions and have given up three touchdowns to these players. Keenan Allen alone nearly dropped 200 yards on this secondary. This will be the best wide receiver unit that this secondary has faced to this point, but it won’t matter if the offensive line is unable to protect Ryan.

Prediction

This has been a difficult start to the season for the Falcons, but the Texans have had a surprisingly similar start to the 2019 season. Neither team has lived up to its offseason billing. Both teams have had dramatic wins, and both have had frustrating losses. Both of these teams have premier quarterbacks, but neither has been able to protect them. Finally, with both coaches on the hot seat, this is a must win game for both teams.

The Texans have holes that most good teams have been able to expose. They have a decrepit offensive line and they have a secondary that can be gashed by an upper-tier passing attack. That makes this week that much more frustrating for Atlanta supporters.

On offense, the Falcons absolutely have the arsenal of skill players to put points up against this Texans defense, but they likely won’t get the chance due to their pass rush.

On defense, the Falcons have the blueprint to beat the Texans’ offense, but the pass rush has given us no reason to believe they can take advantage of their obvious deficiencies. I feel like a broken record talking about the offensive line and pass rush, but they must be better if they are going to have a chance in Houston.

In the first game Atlanta has played in Houston since Super Bowl LI, the ghosts of the past will present themselves and give fans only more heartache.

Falcons – 17

Texans – 27