How Texans can lift Deshaun Watson; Cowboys unlock potential

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

-- Why less is more for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.

-- Do the Cowboys finally have the right plan on offense?

-- How Eric Ebron is finally starting to live up to the billing.

But first, a look at what one team must do to help its QB rediscover his greatness ...

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What's wrong with Deshaun Watson?

That's the million-dollar question Houston Texans fans want answered as they watch their franchise quarterback endure a sophomore slump that has dampened some of the enthusiasm created by his spectacular rookie season. After taking the NFL by storm during a seven-game stint last season that saw him put up MVP-like numbers while directing the most exciting offense in football, Watson has looked nothing like the sensational playmaker that prompted some people, including me, to tout the Texans as title contenders in 2018.

Despite completing almost 65 percent of his passes (a nearly three-point improvement from last season), Watson has a 9:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 90.8 passer rating. Although those numbers certainly are not abysmal by traditional standards, they aren't in line with the 19:8 TD-to-INT ratio and 103.0 passer rating that No. 4 posted as a rookie. In fact, Watson's statistical output ranks in or near the bottom third of NFL starters in most major passing categories, including passer rating (20th), completion percentage (18th), passing touchdowns (T-16th) and interceptions (tied for fifth-most).

Now, it isn't uncommon to see a young quarterback struggle during Year 2 after defensive coordinators spend the offseason searching for holes in a QB1's games, but Watson's woes are a bit of a surprise based on how easily he torched defenses as a rookie starter.

The 12th overall pick in the 2017 draft played like a cagey veteran in the pocket as a first-year starter, exhibiting exceptional poise and confidence while picking apart defenses with an assortment of quick-rhythm throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Watson's mastery of the quick game, particularly on line-of-scrimmage throws (bubble screens) and sticks/slants thrown between the numbers and hashes, made it tough for defenses to disrupt his timing and rhythm in the pocket.

Studying the Next Gen Stats data from 2017, I noticed Watson completed 90.4 percent of his passes at or behind the line of scrimmage and 72.1 percent of his passes beyond the line of scrimmage within 10 yards. Interestingly, he completed nearly 80 percent of his short throws (within 10 yards of the LOS) between the hashes and numbers (on each side of the field), which confirms his love of stick routes, slants and short crossers to slot receivers.

In addition, the review of Watson's 2017 NGS breakdown suggested he was a more efficient and effective deep-ball passer when targeting the deep middle and right side of the field. He completed 56.5 percent of his throws (13 of 23 passes for 426 yards with a 7:1 TD-INT ratio) directed from the middle of the field to the right sideline beyond 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. However, he completed only 25 percent of his deep throws (beyond 20 yards) targeted between the left hash and sideline, including a 1-for-10 mark on throws from the left numbers to the sideline. So, defensive coordinators entered 2018 with a better idea of No. 4's sweet spots on the field.

Fast forward to 2018, and Watson's NGS data continues to suggest he is an efficient quick-rhythm passer from the pocket. He's completing 84 percent of his throws at or behind the line of scrimmage and 66 percent of his passes in the short area (within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage). Watson remains at his best when throwing the ball between the numbers at that depth, as evidenced by his 76 percent completion rate and 4:0 TD-INT ratio.

To his credit, Watson has become more efficient on intermediate throws (10 to 20 yards) with a 72.5 percent completion rate and an average of 12.3 yards per attempt. Those numbers are significant improvements over the 45.6 percent completion rate (21 of 46 passes) and 7.0 yards per attempt Watson posted on throws within that range in 2017.

Considering the NGS data, No. 4 is actually playing better than his rookie season as a rhythm passer within Bill O'Brien's offense. However, Watson's deep-ball woes are wrecking his efficiency totals as a passer. No. 4 has completed just 31 percent (9 of 29 passes) of his deep-ball attempts, throwing four interceptions in the process. With only one score on a deep shot, Watson hasn't been able to successfully throw the ball over the defense, and the Texans' scoring output is down due to this lack of explosives in the passing game.

"It is hard to score points in this league without big plays," a former NFL head coach and offensive coordinator told me. "If you can't move the ball in chunks, the odds are against you driving the length of the field with short throws. Penalties, dropped passes and poor execution will eventually end drives fueled by dink-and-dunk passes."

Now, there are certainly a lot of factors that can explain Watson's decline as a playmaker. The second-year pro has been under siege in the pocket, with the offensive line unable to keep pass rushers at bay. Watson has been sacked a league-high 25 times and also leads the NFL in QB hits taken (63). The constant harassment has certainly impacted his ability to throw, as evidenced by his NFL-worst passer rating when facing pressure, per Next Gen Stats.

With that in mind, the Texans have to re-examine their approach to see if they can get their young quarterback back on track. O'Brien should consider switching things up a little on offense. Despite ranking as the No. 9 offense in total yardage, the Texans haven't fully tapped into their explosive potential. Sure, DeAndre Hopkins has been a monster on the outside as a WR1, but the team's other playmakers have been non-factors over the past few weeks. Will Fuller, in particular, needs to become more involved in the passing game as the team's designated vertical threat.

After posting back-to-back 100-yard games in Week 2 and Week 3, Fuller has been held to less than 50 receiving yards in each of the Texans' last three games. Although the team's shaky pass protection prevents Watson from waiting on the speedy receiver to run past coverage, the Texans could run more two- and three-man route combinations with max protection to give Watson and Fuller a better chance to connect. Considering how much Houston utilizes single-back formations with "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 WRs, 2 TEs) on the field, O'Brien can easily script some "shot" plays off run-action fakes. Last season, the Texans used a variety of misdirection and deception tactics in the backfield to set up deep balls to Fuller. They should get back to those kinds of concepts to add some juice to the offense.

The Texans can also help Watson get back into a groove by featuring more empty sets on early downs. The second-year player excels at working the middle of the field on short throws, particularly on stick routes and seams to slot receivers. In empty formations, these routes are available when slot receivers are matched up with linebackers forced to align outside of the box to cover No. 2 or No. 3 in the formation (defenders count WRs from outside-in when looking at formations). Most importantly, these routes force the quarterback to get the ball out of his hand quickly.

According to Next Gen Stats, the Texans have averaged 7.74 yards per play when they've aligned in empty formations on first down, compared to 5.61 and 4.31 yards, respectively, in shotgun and single-back formations. Considering the production the Texans have generated out of the empty formation on early downs, it's sensible for the team to use the package regularly to jump-start their QB1's production.

The Texans should also consider scaling back some of the designed quarterback runs for Watson. Despite his athleticism and crafty running skills, No. 4 is better suited to run on impromptu scrambles to avoid pressure instead of QB powers and QB sweeps directed between the tackles or on the edges. The big hits Watson could take at the end of those runs might sap his stamina and strength in critical parts of the game.

Most importantly, the battering at the hands of the defense could make Watson flinch when pass rushers get near him in the pocket on passing plays.

Finally, the Texans have to lean a little more on the running game when they cross midfield and approach the red zone. Although they've averaged 28.2 rushing attempts per game (10th in the league) and 109.2 rushing yards (15th), increasing the threat of the running game even more will eventually open up passing lanes off play-action. Now, I know the offensive line has to perform better at the point of attack, but that unit's inconsistency shouldn't discourage O'Brien from relying on the run a little more.

In the red zone, the threat of the run can lure a safety into the box to create touchdown chances on "pole" routes (skinny posts) following play fakes to a runner heading in that direction. Last season, Hopkins scored a handful of touchdowns on this concept. The Texans must run the ball enough in the red area to increase the effectiveness of the complementary passing concept near the goal line. Considering the Texans' red-zone struggles (ranked 31st in efficiency at 34.6 percent; the NFL average is 56 percent), the threat of the run will lead to more points. Better yet, it will help Watson improve his woeful numbers throwing into the end zone (12.9 percent completion rate; 4:4 TD-INT ratio).

For a team positioned at 3-3 in an AFC South that's up for grabs, the Texans only need to make a few tweaks to help No. 4 jump-start his game and spark an offense with the potential to light up scoreboards around the league.

THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league

1) The key to Seattle's resurgence. It is quite uncommon for an NFL team to take the ball out of an MVP-caliber quarterback's hands, but the Seattle Seahawks have discovered that fewer passing attempts from Russell Wilson lead to more Ws.

The four-time Pro Bowler is averaging just 218.0 passing yards on 27.5 attempts per game this season, despite coming off a 2017 campaign where he averaged 248.9 yards on 34.6 attempts to become a legit MVP candidate. This year's figures are Wilson's lowest marks since the team's back-to-back Super Bowl runs: 209.8 and 25.4 in 2013; 217.2 and 28.3 in 2014. During that span, most observers viewed Wilson as a solid game manager with some electric playmaking ability. Despite engineering 10 game-winning drives and six fourth-quarter comebacks over those two seasons, Wilson was still a complementary piece of an offensive puzzle that was built around a Marshawn Lynch-fueled run game.

That's not a knock or dismissal of Wilson's impact on the squad as a QB1, but those Seahawks were ground-oriented squads with run-pass ratios of 52:48 (2013) and 51:49 (2014). In a pass-centric league, the 'Hawks defied convention by playing old-school football with the RB1 as the focal point.

Fast forward to 2018, and the Seahawks are returning to that formula (49:51 run-pass ratio) despite having a franchise quarterback and an unheralded "RBBC" (running back by committee) in place. Why? The presence of a strong running game enables an offense to control the pace of the game.

While most observers focus extensively on rushing yards, it is the number of rushing attempts that alters the minds of opposing defensive coordinators. With each handoff, the offense lures defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, thus creating big-play opportunities in the passing game off play-action. In addition, a steady diet of rushing attempts is part of a "complementary football" strategy that incorporates time of possession and the field-position battle into the game plan. Instead of making play-calling decisions based solely on what's best for the offense, the play caller will consider how his decisions could impact the defense and kicking game.

Although this strategy would appear to skew toward a more conservative approach, it is really a philosophy that factors in the overall strengths and weaknesses of a team. For instance, the 2013/14 Seahawks were led by a dominant defense that consistently held opponents to fewer than 20 points and yielded minimal yardage on the ground. They consistently forced three-and-outs to give the offense the ball back in favorable positions. The 'Hawks didn't need to take a risky approach on offense, since they would eventually make their way into the scoring zone by playing ping-pong in the kicking game after defensive stops. Thus, Wilson wasn't asked or expected to lead a fast-break attack that tossed the ball all over the yard to light up the scoreboard. The young QB was encouraged to play smart and efficient from the pocket, while making an occasional play with his feet to move the chains and sustain drives. Seattle would lean on Lynch as the driving force of the offense, with the team's punishing running game expected to wear down opponents by the fourth quarter. This strategy would lead to a ton of close games, but the defense rarely conceded points and the offense would eventually come through with a critical score in the closing minutes.

"A strong running game allows the offense to control the game and dictate the terms," a former NFL defensive coordinator recently told me. "You can wear down a defense while playing keep-away from an explosive offense. You can also protect your own defense by limiting their exposure on the field.

"The idea of complementary football is built around the commitment to run the ball and make the quarterback play as more of a game manager than playmaker."

Now, I know some Wilson fans will cringe at the notion of No. 3 being viewed as a game manager, but even Tom Brady acts as the ultimate game manager at times. Brady's Pats have consistently competed for Super Bowls due to his understanding of complementary football and willingness to take a back seat when the situation dictates. This is how New England is able to throw 50-plus times one week and run it 40-plus the next. Brady is all about winning, whether that entails racking up gaudy statistics or not.

In Seattle, Wilson has shown a willingness to adhere to that strategy in the past, and Pete Carroll is banking on his franchise quarterback playing to that script again in 2018. Obviously, the Seahawks' current defense isn't nearly as stout as the vintage "Legion of Boom" units. But, with the D breaking in a bunch of new faces, Carroll is hoping the team's more run-oriented approach will limit defensive snaps and keep the game under control.

"We couldn't be any more specific about it," Carroll said, via the Seattle Times, of the formula the 'Hawks employed to register their first win of the season against the Dallas Cowboys back in Week 3. "We want to run the football, we want to play defense and we want to use the kicking game as much as we can to control the field."

Many people thought this would be a rough year for the Seahawks, but with three wins in the last four games, they're suddenly right in the mix at 3-3. And seeing how the offense averages 30.0 rushing attempts per game, I'd say the "less is more" strategy with Wilson is producing the kind of results that lead to real wins instead of fantasy football victories.

2) A winning formula for Dallas? I don't know if Jason Garrett was a math major at Princeton, but he appeared to use an Algebraic equation to get the Dallas Cowboys' offense back on track in a 40-7 beatdown of Jacksonville: 21 + 11 + 4 = W.

"The Cowboys made a concerted effort to give the ball to No. 21 , No. 11 and No. 4 in the Jaguars game," a former NFL defensive coordinator who studied tape of the Cowboys' Week 6 performance told me, in reference to Ezekiel Elliott, Cole Beasley and Dak Prescott. "The strategy makes perfect sense when you focus on players instead of plays. Get the ball to your stars as many times as possible and, eventually, they will make enough plays to produce points. Now, they will eventually have to change it up a bit when teams double-team Beasley to take him out of the passing game, but they can definitely lean on Zeke and Dak to carry the load as runners."

The Cowboys' rushing offense is more potent when Prescott plays a major role as a runner. Sure, Elliott is a former NFL rushing champion with a rugged running style that routinely leads to 100-yard games (24 rushes for 106 yards and a touchdown vs. Jacksonville), but Dak is capable of adding some hidden rushing yardage to the offensive totals with quarterback-designed runs and impromptu scrambles. That's how he played at Mississippi State, and he's posted six rushing touchdowns in each of his first two NFL seasons. This past Sunday, Prescott set pro career highs in rushes (11) and rushing yards (82).

"Ever since he's been here, he's been a guy who's been able to make impact plays with his feet by design -- but also when plays break down," Garrett said after the resounding win over the Jags, via ESPN.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones doubled down on that sentiment, discussing Prescott's talents as a dual-threat -- and how other teams have used similar playmakers.

"We've got templates for that," Jones said. "We had it last week there in Houston (with Deshaun Watson), and then we had it in Carolina (with Cam Newton). They were able to have the quarterback make rushing yardage, and it compromised our defense, and we got a good defense."

When asked if it bothered him to see his franchise quarterback running more in recent weeks, Jones seemed to encourage the 25-year-old to use his legs more going forward.

"Yes, I am. I'd rather see him running like that and sliding than getting chipped and nipped away at the ankles and the sacks that come in with what's in that pocket," Jones said. "I'm fine with that. That will basically cause us to open it up. We don't have to rely on that because we've got Zeke when we're at full bore out there. Our antidote for [Dak] is really directly Zeke. We don't have to depend on a lot of downfield connections for those two. You can hand it off to him or you can keep it."

In the passing game, the Cowboys might've discovered an unlikely No. 1 receiver in the 5-foot-8 Beasley, who caught nine passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns vs. Jacksonville. While the rest of the football world might view the diminutive playmaker as strictly a slot receiver, the Cowboys see him as their best option in the passing game. An electric route runner with outstanding stop-start quickness, Beasley is a matchup player the team can target to exploit voids in coverage or a suspect defender.

"He typically wins one-on-one situations," Garrett said, per ESPN.com. "He's just a hard guy to guard. Very quarterback-friendly."

"You saw (Jason) Witten stuff. You saw No. 1-ish. We talk about what is [a No. 1 receiver], well, of course, but we saw an emphasis on what he does, his level," Jones said. "There's no question we all know his skill is separation and he was able to do that."

With Beasley settling into his role as the team's No. 1 receiver and Prescott using his running skills to add a dimension to the NFL's second-ranked running game anchored by Elliott, the Cowboys finally look like a squad with the potential to compete for the NFC East crown.

3) Why Eric Ebron is breaking out in Year 5. In the NFL, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Coaches and scouts are always willing to give a former first-rounder a chance to revive his career, particularly when he was selected as a top-10 pick in a draft loaded with Pro Bowlers.

That's why I'm not surprised the Indianapolis Colts gave Eric Ebron an opportunity to carve out a role as a TE1 on an offense that desperately needed to put more playmakers around Andrew Luck. Now, I certainly didn't expect the fifth-year pro to be tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns (6) after six weeks. After all, Ebron totaled 11 touchdowns during his four seasons with the Detroit Lions. Still, Ebron was universally viewed as a top-tier talent in the 2014 draft class with the kind of size (6-foot-4, 250 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine), athleticism and playmaking potential to dominate as a flex tight end.

In Detroit, Ebron never quite developed into the difference maker Lions officials expected when he was selected ahead of the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald, Ryan Shazier, Zack Martin, Taylor Lewan and C.J. Mosley. Part of Ebron's failures could be attributed to scheme and utilization, but the bulk of the blame belongs to the young player due to his immaturity, inconsistent hands and lack of discipline. Lions officials questioned his commitment to the game and wondered if he would ever get it as a pro. Moreover, they didn't think he could evolve from his role as a pass-catching tight end to the traditional "Y" position.

In Indianapolis, Frank Reich and his staff elected to look at Ebron as a pass-catching tight end with the potential to play a LeBron James-like role for the offense. Reich discussed his plans for Ebron at the NFL Annual League Meeting in March: "In Philadelphia, we got in a lot of sets where (Zach) Ertz is on the back side -- single him up and see how they play it. Everybody knows that when you get in that formation, it gives the quarterback certain information. There is a lot of man coverage in this league -- the league is going more and more man coverage -- so you want to do that, and now you put an elite tight end on the back side.

"It's like clearing it out for LeBron or something, in basketball; just get everybody on one side of the court and get this guy one-on-one. Well, that's the analogy here. So in football, get all the receivers on one side, get the back on the other side, and then just put the tight end back here and see what they do. And some teams will double him, and then you get a linebacker, you get a safety, even when they have a corner on him, you feel like it's still a winning matchup, because of his size and catch radius."

After studying the All-22 Coaches Film on this season's Colts, I can confirm that Reich has used Ebron like LeBron at times. Indianapolis occasionally aligns the pass-catching tight end on the back side of 3x1 formations to create and exploit mismatches on the perimeter. In addition, the Colts have positioned Ebron at the No. 3 position in 3x1 sets to take advantage of lumbering inside linebackers matched up with him in man coverage or as the deep-middle runner in Tampa 2 zones.

Reviewing the Next Gen Stats data, Ebron has been primarily catching seam routes and short crossers from a slot position. Those routes certainly make sense, given his unique combination of size, speed and athleticism. He is built like a jumbo wide receiver and those quick-rhythm routes play to his strengths as a playmaker. Although the Colts haven't fully explored the possibilities with Ebron, Indy's new acquisition leads the team in targets (52) and yards (396), in addition to touchdowns. Most importantly, he has helped Luck become a more efficient player. When targeting tight ends this season, No. 12 has posted a 107.7 passer rating on the strength of an 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. When targeting Ebron alone, Luck is a posting 114.7 passer rating. Considering his struggles when targeting Indy wide receivers (82.8 passer rating and a 6:5 TD-to-INT ratio), it's fairly obvious Ebron has become Luck's No. 1 option in the passing game.

After spending four years viewed as an underachiever in Detroit, Ebron is finally excelling on a team that's building a plan around his talents as a former No. 10 overall pick.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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