David J. Phillip/Associated Press
All is not well with the Houston Texans, and Deshaun Watson’s insertion into the lineup isn’t going to hide the team’s inadequacies.
The Texans’ contest against the Jacksonville Jaguars was supposed to serve as a rallying cry for Houston after Hurricane Harvey, much like the salve the New Orleans Saints once provided after Katrina.
J.J. Watt came out of the locker room like a conquering hero prior to Sunday’s game—as he should have after raising an astonishing $30 million to help relief efforts—yet the rest of the team didn’t receive the message. The Texans fell 29-7 to the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium.
“There’s only one way to go from here and that’s up,” Watt said after the game, per the Houston Chronicle‘s John McClain. “We can’t play much worse.”
No, the Texans can’t.
McClain has covered the NFL since the Oilers were in existence. His knowledge of the area and the league is peerless. His reaction to the team’s performance Sunday spoke volumes:
John McClain @McClain_on_NFL
Considering how big this game is to the city, I think it’s the most embarrassing performance I’ve seen the Texans have. Fans booing.
Obviously, the performance was supposed to be about something bigger, yet it devolved into a distressing effort.
The issue began months ago when the organization did everything in its power to anoint Tom Savage as its starting quarterback without giving its first-round rookie a legitimate chance to compete.
Savage is what he is, and he’s not a starting NFL quarterback. The fourth-year signal-caller played in five contests prior to Sunday and hadn’t thrown a single touchdown. He completed 7-of-13 passes for a meager 62 yards before being yanked from the lineup.
The veteran quarterback’s pocket presence was far worse than his production. Savage didn’t live up to his surname when he looked like a deer in headlights against Jacksonville’s pass rush.
Jaguars defenders sacked Savage six times. Was it entirely his fault? No. The offensive line’s performance was awful (and that’s being kind). Yet, the 6’4″, 230-pound quarterback didn’t display any type of poise or mobility to avoid oncoming rushers.
Head coach Bill O’Brien turned to Watson. This year’s 12th overall pick supposedly needed time to absorb O’Brien’s complicated scheme and adjust to the NFL game. Well, the coach realized his first option wasn’t very good.
“Decision to go with Deshaun was more about whether we could provide a spark,” O’Brien said, per USA Today‘s Lorenzo Reyes.
Watson experienced ups and downs by completing 12 of 23 passes for 102 yards, a touchdown and an interception (the rookie also had an interception nullified by a penalty before his first passing score).
The coach wouldn’t commit to either quarterback for Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals, per the Chronicle‘s Aaron Wilson. Even so, this should be Watson’s job from this point forward. The team can then concentrate on other problem areas.
The Texans are awful in the trenches. Offensively, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Defensively, a major problem may have emerged after Jacksonville manhandled Houston’s defensive front.
Duane Brown walks away from this weekend as the one player around the league who gained the most. The three-time Pro Bowl left tackle is entangled in a contract dispute with the organization and hasn’t reported to the team.
Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Former undrafted free-agent Kendall Lamm started in Brown’s stead and the Jaguars pass rush overwhelmed the blindside protector. Left guard wasn’t much better. O’Brien decided to replace starter Xavier Su’a-Filo with Greg Mancz. Meanwhile, Breno Giacomini started at right tackle. He didn’t play much better than the aforementioned blockers.
“I feel good about our tackle situation,” O’Brien said last week, per ESPN.com’s Sarah Barshop. “We’ve had these guys around for a while.”
The coach assuredly feels differently today than he did a few days ago.
In total, the Texans surrendered a franchise-record 10 sacks and 10 more quarterback hits. Calais Campbell also set a new Jaguars record with four sacks.
Jacksonville owns a talented defensive front with Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler Jr. But Houston knew it had problems at offensive tackle and did nothing significant to address the issue.
Right tackle Derek Newton is on injured reserve due to last season’s knee injuries, while Brown’s demands began months ago. The Giacomini acquisition served as the team’s underwhelming response. The Texans also selected Julie’n Davenport in the fourth round of April’s draft, but he’s considered a long-term project and likely wouldn’t fare much better than Lamm.
One solution is simple: Sign Brown to a new contract.
“I definitely plan on playing football this year,” the 32-year-old blocker said Monday, per Wilson.
“I’m always in shape. I’m in shape year-round, 24/7, 365. So I’m just working out, doing what I have to do. When I’m out there, I’ll handle my business.”
Right tackle doesn’t have a similar solution. Neither does left guard if the staff isn’t certain who it wants to start between Su’a-Filo and Mancz. The offensive line is going to be an issue throughout the campaign and will only stunt the team’s growth.
A much bigger and unpleasant surprise stemmed from the defensive line’s inability to win at the point of attack.
Last season, the Texans finished with the league’s No. 1-ranked defense. The unit dominated despite Watt’s absence. The defensive end’s return from two back surgeries created excitement based on the potential found within Houston’s front seven.
Yet the Jaguars whipped the Texans, and Watt didn’t look like his old self.
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year told McClain his play Sunday was “terrible. There’s no other way to describe it.”
Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
Not only did Watt play poorly, but he injured his right hand, too.
“Just busted the bone through the skin. Nothing bad,” he said after the game.
Watt played through numerous injuries during his career, but they’re starting to add up and affect his play. He missed all but three games last season and started the 2017 campaign having left another contest.
Even without Watt, the Texans still feature Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney. The Jaguars punched this group in the proverbial mouth.
Rookies Leonard Fournette and Cam Robinson provided awesome showings. Fournette carried the ball 26 times for 100 yards and a touchdown, while Robinson consistently won at the point of attack.
The Jaguars aren’t even considered one of the NFL’s most physical teams, but they established their running game and the Texans rolled over.
All of this could be overlooked to a degree if the Texans had an answer at quarterback. Watson, alongside Watt, is supposed to be the face of the franchise. He very well could be, but he’s a rookie who will need time to develop. The team will suffer through growing pains with him under center.
As talented as Watson is, he’ll need to process information must faster. His pocket presence must improve as well. Jacksonville sacked the rookie four times because he held the ball too long. He’s going to make poor decisions and throw interceptions. This is to be expected when playing a first-year signal-caller. Even if the rookie rapidly progresses, his play can’t hide the issues the Texans already displayed in the trenches.
Quarterback may be football’s most important position, but improved quarterback play will only go so far when the line protecting him is flawed in its construction.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.