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In a low-scoring game on Thursday Night Football, Texans' fans got their initial look at the franchise's quarterback of the future as a full-game starter. After coming in for Tom Savage during Houston's Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Deshaun Watson made the first start of his NFL career against the Bengals.
The 12th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft didn't post eye-popping numbers in the air, throwing for just 125 yards on 24 attempts. The conditions couldn't have been rockier coming in for Watson and the Texans. Not only was this game on the road, but it came on a short week. Watson spent most of the week on the injury report with an ankle malady and didn't have his entire tight end room along with several wide receivers at his disposal thanks to a litany of injuries. Not to mention, Houston is still without the services of All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown, who's still mid-holdout.
Despite all the challenges, Watson still snagged the win on his 22nd birthday and clearly brought some life to this offense that Savage simply could not provide in the team's opener. An adept and prolific runner in college, Watson's ability to make plays with his legs was a big factor in this contest.
Not only was it the lone touchdown of the game, Deshaun Watson's scoring run was the longest distance traveled on a scramble among quarterbacks over the past two seasons. It was an impressive play where Watson eluded multiple defenders on way to the end zone. He managed to get away from oncoming Bengals' tacklers all night, as Watson averaged 11.5 yards after a defender closed within one yard of him on his rushing plays.
The rookie's ability to move set up his work through the air, as well. Watson posted a 2.96-second time to throw against the Bengals, which would have been the sixth-highest time among Week 1 passers. Among the top five last week were several notorious scramble-to-improvise players like Russell Wilson (3.2), Tyrod Taylor (3.06) and Aaron Rodgers (3.0). Purely from a playing-style perspective, it's not surprising to assert that Watson would emulate some of these players.
Holding onto the ball to go off-script did help him as a passer:
Throws taking less than 2.5 seconds: 56.3 passer rating
Throws taking 2.51-plus seconds: 87.0 passer rating
In addition, there's also a chicken and egg discussion worth having when it comes to the performance of the offensive line. The Jaguars notoriously pummeled the Texans into the ground in Week 1, posting 10 sacks as a team. Houston surrendered a pressure rate of over 64 percent against Jacksonville, while no other team even eclipsed the 50 percent mark. Perhaps with the assistance of a quarterback who can move, the line performed better Thursday night, allowing a pressure rate of just 21.1 percent, despite several highlight plays from Geno Atkins on the Cincinnati side. That checked in under the Week 1 average of 28.9 percent.
With all the positivity that came with Watson's work on the ground, it's more than fair to assert we need to see much more from him as a passer. Watson's completions only traveled an average of 6.3 yards in the air. He didn't open up the downfield passing game at all in his first NFL contest, throwing just two passes farther than 15 air yards. His throws on third down came in on average minus-1.5 air yards short of the sticks.
While he opened up the field for his play-making ability as a runner, it's clear the Texans are still a hamstrung passing offense with Watson under center. In addition to not taking enough chances downfield, he failed to make much noise in tight-window situations. Over 29 percent of Watson's pass attempts went into tight windows (receiver had less than a yard of separation) and he completed just two of them for 16 yards with a 39.6 passer rating.
Of course, it will help to get a set of playmakers back in place that goes beyond just DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans top wideout owned an unsustainably massive 63.3 percent share of the team's intended air yards. For context, Hopkins led all receivers in that stat with 56 percent in Week 1 and Mike Evans led the NFL last season with 42.7 percent.
In his first NFL start, we saw all elements of Watson's game. The dazzling plays that made him a decorated college athlete were there, along with the play-making mentality that sends game commentators into fawning over his intangibles. Yet, right alongside that were the throws that left you wanting more; missed opportunities and miscues that saw Watson regress in his final college season.
We still aren't quite sure what the future holds for Watson as the team's franchise quarterback or how high his ceiling is as an NFL passer. Yet, all that matters for tonight is that he helped put his team's season on a winning path in a painfully difficult road spot. It was far from a breath-taking effort but Watson passed the first test in his pro career.