In August, the Texans mortgaged their future to protect Deshaun Watson. On Sunday, it worked. The Houston Texans quarterback had one of the best games of his career in Houston’s 53-32 embarrassment of the Falcons, and the result showed just how amazing this Houston squad can be if it keeps its franchise quarterback off the turf.
Watson finished with 28 completions on 33 pass attempts for a career-high 426 yards (12.9 yards per attempt), no turnovers, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. He had the same number of passing touchdowns (five) as incompletions and became the first player in NFL history with more than 400 yards, five passing touchdowns, and fewer than six incompletions in a game. Crucially, Watson was sacked zero times and hit just once in the game, which is a rarity for the player who led the league in sacks last year and was the third-most-sacked QB entering Sunday. The Texans sent multiple first-rounders to Miami for left tackle Laremy Tunsil in late August and drafted two offensive tackles in the first three rounds in April, but Sunday was the first game when their renewed focus on pass protection showed. It was just the second game of Watson’s career that he was not sacked—the other game was against the Dolphins in Week 8 last year. In that game, Watson also had five passing touchdowns plus a near-perfect rating (156) and more touchdowns than incompletions (four). When the Texans protect Watson, he’s one of the best athletes on the planet.
The only person who may have benefited from that protection on Sunday more than Watson was Will Fuller V. In September, Fuller had 14 catches for 183 receiving yards and zero touchdowns. On Sunday, Fuller had 14 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns. His receptions and receiving touchdown marks tied single-game franchise records set by Andre Johnson. Fuller’s 53.7 points PPR scoring was the ninth most for a receiver ever, though he was started in just 11 percent of leagues on ESPN. Fuller’s second touchdown of the day came on a 33-yard pass Watson slung from the 44-yard line that Fuller held onto after getting creamed by Falcons safety Ricardo Allen.
That score made the game 13-10 Texans in the second quarter. Fuller caught a 36-yard pass on the next drive that set up a Ka’imi Fairbairn field goal to make it 16-10. In the third quarter, Fuller caught a 32-yard pass from Watson that set up a score for tight end Darren Fells, which was the first of two scores for Fells on the day.
Watson found Fuller again for a 44-yard touchdown just after the two-minute warning for Fuller’s third touchdown and fourth 30-plus-yard catch of the day.
Texans receiver Keke Coutee, who finished with three catches for 72 yards, told reporters the pass protection around Watson, the simple defense the Falcons played, and Atlanta’s emphasis on stopping star receiver DeAndre Hopkins made it easy for the rest of the Houston pass catchers to make a big impact. Watson elaborated when asked how he found Fuller and his other receivers so easily.
“In the red zone they played, we call it zero rat,” Watson said in an elaborate answer about the Falcons defense in his postgame press conference. “There’s no safety in the middle and that rat defender which is 37 [Ricardo Allen] ... it leaves everyone else one-on-one so that’s why Fells and Will was able to connect and win because it was just one-on-one matchups.”
The question is whether Sunday was an aberration or a harbinger of what’s to come. Atlanta’s defense has been abysmal since losing safety Keanu Neal to an Achilles injury, and has given up an average of 445 yards through the team’s past three games. The Falcons had just five sacks in four games, and are one of seven teams tied for the second fewest in the league entering Week 5. It’s nice to see Houston destroying teams that can’t lay a finger on Watson, but whether the Texans can keep Watson clean for the next month is critical. Next week they play the Kansas City Chiefs, who have far more talented pass rushers than Atlanta. In the next month, Houston will play the Colts, the Raiders, and the Jaguars.
Part of keeping Watson off of the ground is on Watson himself. One of the strongest predictors of sack rate, other than a bad offensive line, is how long a quarterback holds on to the ball. The longer a QB holds on to the ball, the longer a line must block, and the quarterbacks who hold on to the ball to make plays—Watson, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers, and Josh Allen—are among the most sacked in football. Houston’s offensive line has to jell with Watson as much as they have to jell with each other, and a performance like this is encouraging. As long as Deshaun is upright, the Texans have one of the best offenses in the league—and if they protect him next week in Kansas City, they’ll have the chance to prove they are the best offense in the league.