FOXBORO – When Deshaun Watson came into Foxboro for the third game of the 2017 season, the impatient toe-tapping had already started.
In the first two games, Watson led the Texans offense to just two touchdowns – a 49-yard scramble he executed in a Week 2 win at Cincy and a touchdown pass in a Week 1 blowout loss to Jacksonville.
Then Watson played the Patriots and the toe-tapping ceased. The then-rookie from Clemson had a very, very good game going 22 for 33 for 301 yards with two touchdown passes and two picks. Watson also carried eight times for 41 yards.
Watson wasn’t flawless in the 36-33 loss. A couple of his scrambles went for 6 yards on third-and-8 and came up short, for instance. And he was understandably happy-footed in the pocket.
But his performance was an espresso shot to his season as he threw for 16 touchdowns and five picks over his next four games before a knee injury against Seattle ended his year.
One play in particular that stood out came in the third quarter.
It was second-and-22 at the Houston 34, the Texans were down 28-20. Watson took a shotgun snap, got heat from the right from Trey Flowers but stepped up as Flowers was escorted past Watson. Just as he stepped to that spot, though, Watson found himself eye-to-eye with Lawrence Guy who’d just spun off the center.
Watson put it in reverse hard and sidepedaled to his left while Guy chased. Running out of time, Watson pivoted his hips and threw from his own 26 across the field to tight end Ryan Griffin who was by himself at the Patriots 46. Watson got blasted by Guy. Griffin got down to the Patriots 31.
When the Patriots play a quarterback with mobility “setting the edge” becomes a catchphrase we use all week. The defensive line can’t allow scrambles around the end or big gaps in the rush that allow a quarterback to step up and buy time or take off.
But, as Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly pointed out Sunday, “setting the edge” is just part of the problem with Watson.
“This guy brings some different issues,” said Daly. “You obviously want to have him contained, you obviously want to have the edge handled but one of the biggest issues that we learned last year is, you can have him, but you don’t have him."
“Getting this guy on the ground is one of the more difficult things out there,” he added. “You can’t let him have free access around the perimeter obviously. But even when you do a good job there, he’s so elusive in the pocket in terms of making people miss, we had a major issue with that in our game last year and people continued to have an issue with that through last year and into the preseason this year. He’s very elusive.”
The Patriots have seen mobile quarterbacks before. Plenty of times. But the challenge is a little more pronounced when a player like Watson is on the schedule for the opener.
There are new players in the Patriots front-seven (defensive end Adrian Clayborn and inside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, for example). And there are young players in the front-seven (Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise). A quarterback with varied skills means there will be more things for a defense to account for on each snap and – potentially – react to after the snap.
The telepathy good defenses have develops over time. Daly said that last year’s matchup has some relevance.
“There’s a lot to be gleaned from that,” he acknowledged. “Obviously, he’s a dynamic player … but they evolved after we played him as he got experience in the offense before he got injured."
“He continued to develop and they continued to develop around him so we’ll see a different guy than we saw in Week 4 last year. He’s a year older and has a lot more experience and they have more experience in how they use the people around him.”
With Watson returning on offense and J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus rejoining the defense, Houston has all the talent necessary to challenge the Patriots in the AFC.
Sunday will be a good indication whether they’re ready to meet that challenge.