The NFL is on the verge of a quarterback injury crisis. Even before this past weekend’s slate of games—which saw Ben Roethlisberger go down for the season with an elbow injury and sent Drew Brees and his hurt thumb to the operating table—health concerns about the sport’s most irreplaceable players were already a major story. The cumulative impact of the injuries Andrew Luck suffered during his seven-year career pushed him to retire two weeks before the 2019 season. Cam Newton’s offseason shoulder surgery has been referenced often when discussing his early-season struggles. And that’s not to mention the sore ankle that has kept him out of practice this week and could sideline him for the foreseeable future.
Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has managed to avoid injury through two weeks this season, but given the continuous onslaught of pressure and punishment that he takes each game, many have started worrying that he could soon be on the shelf as well. In just two games, Watson has been sacked a league-leading 10 times, and only the Dolphins (23) have allowed more quarterback hits than the Texans (18). Houston’s pass protection was also notoriously terrible last season. Watson was sacked an absurd 62 times in 2018, which easily led the league. He managed to defy the odds and start all 16 games, but broken ribs and a bruised and partially collapsed lung forced him to take a bus to one of them rather than fly on the team’s charter. When your QB can’t get on an airplane because of concerns about the effect air pressure would have on his body, it might be time to make some changes. And that’s what has made the rough start to this season so disheartening.
The Texans spent first- and second-round picks in the 2019 draft on offensive linemen. Earlier this month, Houston head coach/de facto GM Bill O’Brien traded two first-rounders—and a second-round pick—to Miami for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and throw-in wide receiver Kenny Stills. So far, those moves haven’t been enough to keep Watson off the turf.
Much of the blame for Houston’s pass-protection problems the past two years has been placed on the offensive line. That’s understandable. Even with Tunsil, the Texans’ talent up front is still lacking. But when a team’s protection struggles persist for this long, there are usually other factors in play. “It’s the same horror movie from last year,” says former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky. “It’s all-encompassing, and at some point, it falls on the head coach. The play-caller has to do a better job of understanding, ‘We can’t block these guys right now.’” Safeguarding the quarterback is a collective effort. And it’s one where quarterbacks themselves have a surprising amount of agency.
It’s not easy to keep a quarterback clean when he’s looking for big plays at every turn. Watson’s knack for ripping off chunk gains makes the Texans offense a thrilling, quick-strike group. But the way Houston creates those plays has become unsustainable. To avoid the serious QB injury that’s starting to seem inevitable, the Texans have to find a balance between their big-play mentality and their desire to keep Watson on the field. And by looking at other teams and quarterbacks who play with a similar style, they may find a path to harmony.
Beyond “have better offensive linemen”—a wish most teams have in an era when pass rushers are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before—pass-protection issues can typically be attributed to a few main faults. The Texans offense features all of them. The first is quarterback release time. Watson’s average time to throw, 2.84 seconds, ranked fourth highest in the NFL in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s not a coincidence that Watson, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Russell Wilson all ranked in the top five in that category and finished among the top 10 for percentage of disrupted dropbacks, according to PFF. Watson hasn’t held onto the ball quite as long so far this season, but his average release time of 2.69 seconds still ranks 10th highest among qualified QBs.
Holding on to the ball obviously means more blocking time for your offensive linemen—and even the best at their position can keep rushers at bay for only so long. When Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari got the starting nod as a rookie in 2013, Aaron Rodgers had already developed a reputation for bouncing around in the pocket and trying to extend plays. “My first week, talking to some of the veterans, it was, ‘Hold on to your ass,’” Bakhtiari says. Rodgers and the Packers have managed to avoid high pressure rates in recent years despite the quarterback’s tendency to hold on to the ball (more on that later), but other players—like Wilson—haven’t been so lucky. Seattle has finished in the top six in pressure rate allowed in each of the past five seasons. In four of those years, Wilson also finished in the top five in average time to throw.
Former Packers guard T.J. Lang also sympathizes with the Texans line. During his second year as a full-time starter in 2012, Rodgers was sacked a league-high 51 times, according to Pro Football Focus. But 47 of those came after the quarterback had spent at least 2.5 seconds in the pocket. “We were just getting beat up in the media because Aaron was getting hit all the time,” Lang says. “We’d sit in the film room, and we’d let up five sacks, but maybe one time we’d have gotten beat. We were like, shit, I wish the media knew this.”
That extra time in the pocket alone makes the offensive line’s job tougher, and the ways that Wilson and other quarterbacks move in those situations can create additional problems. Linemen’s pre-snap planning revolves around how fast they think the ball will come out, and where they anticipate the QB will be at the end of his drop. Both Wilson and Watson have shown a habit of bailing from the back of clean pockets before it’s necessary and drifting back too deep as they try to avoid pressure. When it comes to depth in the pocket, the rule of thumb for most teams is that the quarterback’s drop shouldn’t exceed 9.5 yards. “Anything past that,” Vikings quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak says, “is on the quarterback.”
Tunsil was roasted in Week 1 when he gave up a sack late in the Texans’ 30-28 loss to the Saints as Houston was trying to mount a fourth-quarter comeback. But on that play, New Orleans defensive end Trey Hendrickson perfectly timed the snap and Watson drifted to about 11 yards deep in the backfield despite having room to step up in the pocket. Given the speed of Hendrickson’s jump, Tunsil’s only chance at protecting Watson was to push the defender past where he thought the quarterback would be. At Watson’s depth, that wasn’t feasible. Even the best pass blockers in the NFL can watch that play and feel sympathetic to Tunsil’s plight. “That’s just asking a guy to do something that’s pretty impossible,” says Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who PFF named the top pass-blocking lineman in the NFL last season.
Even when a quarterback stays within the preferred 9.5-yard window, certain movements can exacerbate pass-protection problems. Schwartz lays out a scenario in which a left guard expects the quarterback to set up behind the center, only for the QB to drift to the right edge of the tackle box. That difference may seem small, but the shift can drastically alter the angle the guard uses in protection. Pocket manipulation masters like Brees and Tom Brady are experts at understanding how to use subtle movements in traffic to sidestep a defender and stay upright, but when those movements become more pronounced, it can make things tougher on the offensive line because it can’t predict the defender’s reaction. “Those multiple overdramatic moves to get yourself free in the pocket, I think those do the most harm,” Schwartz says.
Those who’ve watched the way that Rodgers bounces around in the pocket may think he’s one of the more egregious offenders in this area, but Bakhtiari says the opposite is true. Part of the advantage that older players like Brees, Brady, and Rodgers—now in his 15th season—have is their detailed knowledge of rush lanes and patterns. Rodgers uses that backlog of information to help his offensive line as often as he hurts it. “Those little movements are calculated at times,” Bakhtiari says. “It can be random. But I’ve talked to him through the years, and he’s purposefully moving forward and back to have the defensive player stop his rush and put him back on the offensive player.”
His feet are not ready for this throw and it doesn't even matter. pic.twitter.com/TZw54CGj8d— Dusty (@DustyEvely) July 10, 2018
Dialogue between the offensive line and a quarterback is paramount for pass-blocking success. Former Packers guard Lang says that Rodgers used to hint to his line before certain plays that he planned to quickly escape the pocket, even if the play’s design didn’t call for it. That tendency to break contain illustrates a way that quarterbacks can extend plays while not putting their offensive linemen at a disadvantage. Some of the most devastating throws that Rodgers, Wilson, and players like Patrick Mahomes pull off come when they spin out of trouble almost immediately. “[Mahomes] can make the one or two small movements to stay in the pocket, but when he breaks the pocket, he breaks the pocket,” Schwartz says. “He doesn’t really stay in the pocket and try to work it, work it, work it. He finds the opening, puts himself in space, and tries to find a guy downfield.”
Along with release time and movement patterns, scheme and coaching can also help a team overcome a talent deficiency on the offensive line. And for a former quarterback like Orlovsky, that’s been the most frustrating part of the Texans’ first two games: The coaching staff is making the same mistakes that plagued it last season. Houston had significant problems picking up blitzes in 2018, and that’s continued with Tunsil, running back Duke Johnson, and the rest of its new personnel up front. During the Texans’ loss to the Saints, New Orleans consistently sent blitzes on the side opposite the tight end, and the Texans failed to pick up those pressure packages. “They can’t pass it off well,” Orlovsky says. “Part of me was a little bit understanding with the new tailback and the new tackle. But it’s the same story. It has to fall on Bill O’Brien at some point.”
The hope is that with more time together, Tunsil and Johnson—who’s had a particularly rough time in protection—will get a better sense of the current scheme and how Watson operates within it. Bakhtiari is just starting his seventh season with Rodgers, and he believes it takes significant time for players to understand how to block for a mobile, play-making quarterback. “I’ve been playing with Aaron my entire career,” Bakhtiari says. “It’s the only thing I’ve known in the NFL. I’ve seen reactions of rushers that have happened so many times that I think, ‘When this reaction is happening, it means this is what’s happening behind me.’ When I’ve been asked to do it so many times, I’ve become a little bit more familiar with what’s happening behind me.”
In the meantime, though, there are ways that O’Brien and the Texans can find a balance between giving Watson the freedom to push the ball downfield and doing a better job of protecting him. One method is with more heavy sets and max-protection looks that feature only two or three receivers running routes. Houston tries to create deep play-action shots on early downs, but too often, those designs come out of sets with three receivers and a single tight end. Which leaves the Texans blockers at a disadvantage. Orlovsky says that against the Saints, O’Brien used designs that asked a tight end to block All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan on two separate occasions. “That’s just stupid,” Orlovsky says. “I don’t care who the tight end is.” The Texans have their share of max-protection, play-action shot plays in the playbook. It’s just a matter of leaning on them more than they have in the past.
When the Texans do choose to put three receivers on the field and spread defenses out, they generally do it in ways that leave them vulnerable. In most situations, an offense’s rules for dealing with the blitz are fairly uniform: Some combination of the quarterback and the offensive line (the roles vary by team) will designate a specific linebacker pre-snap as the “Mike.” That player, along with the front four defenders, becomes the responsibility of the offensive line. If a different defender blitzes after the Mike is assigned, it’s the quarterback’s job to throw the ball “hot” to the receiver in the vacated area.
Experienced lines can skillfully tweak protection schemes and rules each week for specific plays and opponents, a tactic the Packers used regularly as their linemen spent more time together. “We’d used to have little side meetings with Aaron and the offense where we’d sit down on Saturdays and say, the coaches really like this play, but we’re not really digging it that much because we think there’s a weakness here,” Lang says. “We used to not have two different game plans, but have modified game plans as players.” For the new-look Texans, though, that would be like asking junior high students to take a calculus test. At this point, Houston is botching even basic “hot” rules at an alarming rate.
On Sunday, Wilson and the Seahawks showed just how much a passing game can make a blitz-heavy team pay as they sliced and diced the Steelers with quick passes to hot receivers in the middle of the field. Whether it’s tweaking certain route designs or putting more of an emphasis on routes with defined, built-in hot options, the Texans could benefit from a similar approach.
Even with all those alterations, though, as long as the Texans have Watson under center, they’re going to be walking the tightrope between getting rid of the ball quickly and trying to find the big play. After all the time he’s spent in Green Bay, Bakhtiari knows that dance well. “It’s a double-edged sword because it sucks [for the line], but we’ve got a guy who will make you pay,” Bakhtiari says. “There’s not too many guys who can extend a play like [Rodgers] can and throw the ball on a dime like he can.”
Watson happens to be one of them. But while his desire to go for it in every situation is one of his greatest strengths, it’s also one of his greatest weaknesses. So far this season, one side of the sword has cut a little deeper than the other. Houston must find a way to foster Watson’s aggressiveness while also reining him in at the right times. That’s a difficult middle ground to reach, especially for a young quarterback with Watson’s mentality. “When your coach calls a play that gives you a chance to throw the football down the field, whether it’s a bomb or a chunk, it’s like your high school crush saying yes,” Orlovsky says. “Eyes lit up, big smile, let’s go. A lot of times, you become so committed to that, you’re going to hold onto the ball for just that extra second because you want it to be there. And often times, it’s a sack.”
The Texans’ best hopes moving forward involve Watson heaving deep balls and keeping plays alive, but if they keep going about it this way, he won’t be on the field to do it. Houston has to find ways to protect Watson—and ways to protect him from himself.