Down in Houston there is the feeling of a new dawn. Glimpses of a bright future flickered during a six-game flurry when Bill O’Brien and Deshaun Watson lit the National Football League up with swashbuckling offense. Meanwhile, on defense, Jadeveon Clowney’s star continued to rise.
DeAndre Hopkins remains one of the best wide receivers in the league. His supporting cast of Will Fuller, Braxton Miller and Bruce Ellington perfectly complimentary.
On the other side of the ball, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus are returning to full health after missing a substantial portion of 2017 through serious injury.
The run game, while hampered by offensive line issues, still produces at an acceptable level. Lamar Miller averaged 3.7 yards per carry last season. D’Onta Foreman showed promise before his rookie year was cut short in week 10 after suffering an Achilles injury.
The future is bright in Houston, many tipping them to earn a playoff berth and to even top the AFC South which was ruled by a domineering Jacksonville Jaguars squad last term.
The question is, will their final record reflect the buzz surrounding this team?
While Watson provided the spark the offense desperately needed, Tom Savage benched after operating an anaemic attack in the first half of week one against the Jaguars, the sophomore signal caller went 3-3.
Watson’s upside is there for all to see, but so are the pitfalls. He isn’t the first and certainly will not be the last rookie who tries too hard to make a play when the smarter option is to live to fight another down. Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Cam Newton, to name a few, have all put their team in jeopardy trying to force a play.
The hope is that Watson will learn from those mistakes going into year two and beyond, but there was the same hope for Winston after his rookie campaign.
This is not to diminish the former first-round pick’s accomplishments. The 2017 12th overall selection tossed 19 touchdowns in his first seven NFL games, surpassing Hall of Famer Kurt Warner for most touchdown passes in their first seven games.
After looking feeble in week one, Watson was functional, if not dazzling, in a win over the Cincinnati Bengals in week two. The former Clemson Tiger then orchestrated Houston to five straight games of scoring over 30 points.
But to the Yin must come the Yang. Houston lost three of the five games in which they put 30 or more on the scoreboard. That is hard to do. It also speaks to other deficiencies Bill O’Brien’s roster has.
A pulsating week three clash against New England looked as though the upstart would upstage the grand master. The Texans led by five with just over two minutes left on the clock. Tom Brady had been in that position before, nothing new. One minute later the Patriots had scored, snatching the game.
Mike Vrabel’s defense surrendered third and 18 before safety Corey Moore dropped an interception which would have iced the game.
A month later it was Deja Vu. Hopkins took a quick slant to the house and gave his squad a late fourth quarter lead over Seattle, in Seattle. Moments later Russell Wilson drove his offense down the field. Pete Carroll’s men ran out 41-38 victors in one of the games of the season.
Across Watson’s six starts his defense gave up an average of 23.6 points per game. An organisation which in recent times has been recognised for its destructive defense rather than its potent offense, O’Brien saw himself in shootouts, Texas Wild West style.
Although Watt and Mercilus missed most of the season, even with them in the line-up the pass rush lacked real juice, exposing a secondary haemorrhaging yards and points. The addition of Tyrann Mathieu should help, but there is no escaping the flaws the back end has.
The situation was compounded by the lack of draft capital. Houston gave up their 2018 first-round choice to Cleveland to move up for Watson. They also flipped their 2018 second-round pick to the Browns as compensation for Hue Jackson taking Brock Osweiler and his $16 million guaranteed salary. That gave new General Manager Brian Gaine limited resources to work with.
Watson needs a stout defense, or at least one less porous, to give him more possessions and, more importantly, so he does not have to go out and win every game every week. But the very thing his defensive unit will be trying to beat will be the one thing Watson will need more consistent play out of: the offensive line.
The 22-year-old possess the increasingly popular, and in certain cases necessary, art of scrambling. Using his legs to pronounced effect, Watson has managed to paper over the gaping holes in the line designed to protect him. Although, as Russell Wilson has often found out, the method is not sustainable.
Such a method is not conducive to a young quarterback flourishing, Watson will still make mistakes, but asked to put up 35 points on a regular basis he’ll succumb to more errors.
The AFC South outfit will have to match wits with a nasty Jacksonville side twice a year. A revamped Tennessee Titans defense, now coached by former defensive coordinator Vrabel, will also lock horns twice a year with Houston’s bright young star.
Outside of their own division, Bill O’Brien must scheme an offense to beat the terrifying defenses of Super Bowl 50 champions, Denver Broncos, and the most recent hoisters of the Lombardi Trophy, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Romeo Crennel will be tasked with unenviable duty of slowing down Carson Wentz, Tom Brady and, just maybe, Andrew Luck to name but three.
The Texans will be entertaining to watch in 2018. But the question is less about aesthetics as it is results. Houston could be the most fun 6-10 team in the NFL if they do not find ways to address their shortcomings that plagued them last season.
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