| The Detroit News
Thanksgiving will be the first time the Detroit Lions have seen Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, at least not in the regular season. Coach Matt Patricia can’t say the same.
Patricia was in his final season as the New England Patriots defensive coordinator in 2017, fresh off the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title, when the team welcomed Watson and the Texans to Gillette Stadium.
Watson, a Heisman runner-up and first-round draft pick, had labored through his first two NFL starts, completing 57 percent of his throws with a paltry passer rating of 68.3, but that day in Foxborough was something of a coming out party of Watson.
Going toe-to-toe with the defending champs, Watson had the Texans up late in the fourth quarter before Tom Brady connected with Brandin Cooks for a 25-yard touchdown with 23 seconds left to give the Patriots a 36-33 victory.
“I would say the thing about this guy that is amazing is how competitive he is all the way through the game,” Patricia said. “It doesn’t matter the situation, this guy always has that mentality that he’s going to make a play to win, and a lot of times, he does.”
And while the Texans are struggling this year, in the midst of a franchise overall at the top following the mid-season firing of coach and de facto general manager Bill O’Brien, Watson is thriving nonetheless.
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In his fourth season — and first without All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who the Texans inexplicably traded this past offseason — Watson is playing the best football of his career, completing 68.9 percent of his throws with 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
And, as always, he’s a threat to do serious damage with his legs. He’s actually running a little less this season, with 269 yards and two scores this season, but that second touchdown came last week, when he bowled over a Patriots defender as part of a 27-20 victory.
“Deshaun always plays (aggressively) and it just so happened that those guys were right there in front of him and the goal line was right behind them,” Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel said. “He just wanted to get into the end zone, so he lowered his shoulder to do that. Now we’ve talked to him about trying to be careful in those situation, but you know, these guys are really competitive, they’re ultra competitors, and so he wanted to do whatever he could do to help the team win, so he lowered that shoulder and went after it.”
The real danger with Watson’s mobility is that he uses it not to scramble, but to attack downfield, according to veteran Lions safety Duron Harmon.
“He’s a fierce competitor and his scrambling ability is elite,” Harmon said. “It’s up there with the best of them. But the thing he does really well is he scrambles to throw down field.”
Whether it’s the deep ball, or the threat of the catch-and-run, the Texans have racked up their share of big plays in the passing game. They have 40 gains of 20 or more yards through 10 games, one fewer than the Packers and Bills for the league lead.
The Lions meanwhile, have given up 36, which is bottom-10 in the league.
The challenge is covering their speedsters on the outside, Will Fuller and Cooks. Yeah, the same man that caught the winning touchdown against the Texans four seasons ago. Those are two legitimate deep threats, which is a rarity for any team to have on the roster at once.
“If you play too deep, then there’s a lot of things opened up underneath,” Patricia said. “When you roll up there really tight, then obviously they can get behind you. It’s kind of a back-and-forth a little bit that you have to play within the game because of that dynamic vertical speed that they have.”
Still, bottling up Watson remains the key to having any kind of success. Crennel praised his quarterback’s preparation as the key to taking the step he has this season, but having that rare athleticism certainty doesn’t hurt.
Watson is the latest in a gauntlet of dual-threat quarterbacks the Lions have seen this season, from Mitchell Trubisky in the opener, to MVP candidates Kyler Murray and Aaron Rodgers, to the unheralded but talented PJ Walker last week in Carolina.
But Watson is probably the stiffest challenge of them all, with more experience than Murray and greater athleticism than a veteran like Rodgers, who turns 37 next month.
“You see games where defenses have had him wrapped up in the backfield and it’s a sack and the game is over, and he gets out, he gets his eyes downfield, he makes an amazing throw and threads the needle,” Patricia said. “So, he is one of the tops in the league at playing quarterback and being able to get out of pressure and extend plays, run the ball.”