The Houston Texans played their worst game of the season in their Wild Card loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Quarterback Deshaun Watson melted down against the Colts’ zone scheme, providing a clear path for development moving forward.
Anyone who watched the Houston Texans’ 21-7 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts walked away questioning how the Texans won the AFC South with 11 wins. They were thoroughly beaten in all phases of the game, including being out-prepared by the Colts’ coaching staff and unable to lean on their playmakers to provide a spark.
That included their superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson played what may have been his worst game as a professional to date, even if his statistics don’t reflect it. He finished throwing 29/49, 235 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
It wasn’t a fitting end to what was a terrific season from Watson. Some regression was likely as the Texans played the easiest pass-defense schedule in the league, but he continually compensated for the team’s weaknesses in addition to his own. But he was a liability in this game.
Digging into the film revealed significant struggles identifying, anticipating, and taking advantage of the Colts’ zone-heavy defense. There were numerous opportunities for Watson to create chunk plays, especially on third downs, but instead he opted to scramble or check down.
While this game doesn’t override all of the good Watson did this season and the growth he’s shown already in his two seasons, he now enters the off-season with a clear path for improvement. He has to become more efficient pre-snap and show a quicker trigger for when his receivers gain leverage against zone defenders.
I found at least 10 examples of Watson missing reasonable reads. Because it’s a dangerous game to screenshot open receivers without context, I diagrammed and spliced six of the most notable examples where the Texans missed opportunities.
The point isn’t to blame Watson for the loss, but rather to illustrate how much he struggled against a good Colts defense, and how he can continue to get better with experience and self-scouting.
As for the loss, Houston’s defensive staff failed to create any pressure on Andrew Luck and the Colts offense. Head coach Bill O’Brien, the supposed offensive architect, proved rigid and predictable again. Watson couldn’t afford to be less than stellar for his team to even compete, which is an indictment on the staff for not creating easier offense.
One reason Houston was out of the game so early came on a failed fourth-down conversion where Watson threw his lone interception. This was the least-egregious mental mistake by Watson considering how the Colts disguised their coverage pre-snap.
Even though the pre-snap motion was used by Houston to reveal the coverage, Colts cornerback Pierre Desir followed DeAndre Hopkins across the formation, indicating man coverage. Watson proceeds with this in mind despite slot corner Kenny Moore II bailing out of press prior to Watson reaching the top of his drop, and both outside corners quickly providing cushion. Everything post-snap revealed zone, but Watson had made his mind already, throwing a bad interception.
Arguably his worst habit displayed this season is his willingness to drift into pressure and out of structure, losing out on easy yards. Sometimes this can lead to big downfield plays, but other times leads to sacks and negative offensive plays. Watson missed just two throws under pressure, but threw another three out of bounds under pressure.
The above play shows two receivers (highlighted in black) who spring free quickly, but Watson doesn’t recognize the early leverage each gain in their matchup. Hopkins wins off the line against press with a slant, and the slot is wide open as Watson feels ghost pressure. He bailed from the pocket and lost a potential 15-yard play.
While sticking on a read too long is bad, Watson should’ve recognized the advantageous matchups to the bottom of the screen. Even if the slot doesn’t clear the linebacker, then Hopkins would likely have inside positioning on Desir.
That wasn’t the only example of Watson bailing too early despite having the schematic advantage and non-existent pressure.
This third-and-long scramble set up a fourth-and-one situation, which is still a positive play. But there was an opportunity cost as Hopkins came wide open 17 yards downfield, and he had a clear middle of the pocket to reset and throw.
Watson never appeared to look to his left, though, despite the defense showing zone pre-snap. The top of the screen has three receivers but only two direct defenders near the line of scrimmage. This tell was confirmed immediately after the snap when the slot is allowed a free inside release by the slot corner.
The correct reaction at that point would be to wait until the chipping back leaks out to the flat and Hopkins is about to clear the linebacker. He gains the needed leverage while Watson’s standing tall in the pocket at the :08 second mark of the video because the linebacker breaks towards the line of scrimmage.
Most frustrating about the game was his willingness to take check downs. Only nine of his 46 non-throwaway attempts traveled beyond 10 yards, a startling difference from his usual downfield mindset. He was only accurate on four of those nine passes, but the critical seam throws he avoided was a major difference between he and adversary Andrew Luck.
The black route comes wide open, and the pink route is where Watson chooses to go.
Indianapolis rarely goes single-high, and had a coverage bust as they went away from their two-high preference. The slot again grants a free inside release while the other corners carry their receivers in man. Considering how the linebackers drop to clog up intermediate windows, it appears the slot was out of position.
Watson never looked to his right, and the slot was never covered. The play would’ve likely been an easy touchdown. But instead, he was too quick to take the check down despite no pressure.
The final example of Watson’s mental performance being off came on a play that separates the tiers of quarterbacks. Again he opts to throw to the check down (pink line) instead of the seam (black line). This time his decision led to a fourth down.
Indianapolis had three defenders on the top of the screen with only two potential receiving threats on the short-side of the field. This automatically should’ve told Watson that he must read how the linebackers play the seam route. If they carry the slot upfield, the dig route may be open, or at-worst his check down will have space.
But when the linebackers barely drop into their zone, the slot has significant room before he hits safety Malik Hooker. The ball needed to be out before the slot receiver even cleared the linebackers at the :05 second mark of the video.
Instead he waits to see Hopkins double-covered, which he should’ve expected based on the triangle of defenders on that side of the field pre-snap. He then panics and dumps the ball off, while the slot receiver is still open downfield.
While it’s not expected that Watson plays perfectly, no quarterback can perform at the level he showed and reasonably give their team a chance to win. He was the arguably the worst quarterback that played Wild Card weekend with the mental mistakes and several missed throws not even highlighted in this breakdown.
Watson will surely get better because he always has come back with improvements to his game. Hopefully he uses this showing as the launch pad to bigger and better games in the spotlight in the future.