Texans trying to speed up learning process up front
Repeatedly pummeled to the ground, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was nearly hidden underneath a pile of bodies during an overtime victory Sunday night over the Cowboys.
Watson wasn’t only vulnerable in the pocket. He also challenged defenders on the run and absorbed a lot of punishment, enough brutal hits that he’s been limited in practice all week with a chest injury and is regarded as a question mark for Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills.
Yet the Dallas game actually represents incremental progress for an overhauled offensive line that’s struggled all season. The Texans allowed one sack and that was when Watson was tackled for a loss on a quarterback keeper. He was hit 10 times on passing attempts.
For the season, pass protection has been extremely shoddy. Watson already has been sacked 17 times and hit 53 times.
The scary part: This could be much worse, if not for Watson’s trademark mobility and elusiveness.
“He really hides a lot of sins for us up front, to be quite honest,” Texans offensive line coach Mike Devlin said. “I say one thing: Deshaun makes us a better offensive line and Deshaun makes me a better O-line coach.”
While the Texans improved against the Cowboys as they contained star pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, the difficulty of their situation can’t be understated.
At a position that requires continuity, the Bills game represents the first time this season the Texans will start the same offensive line configuration in consecutive weeks.
When right tackle Seantrel Henderson broke his ankle in the season-opener against the Patriots, it triggered a line shuffle the Texans clearly weren’t ready for.
Left tackle Julién Davenport shifted to the right side, but he had prepared the entire offseason to play on the left. Rookie Martinas Rankin had missed a lot of time with a foot injury that required surgery and was forced to start on the left side.
Davenport was subsequently benched against the Indianapolis Colts after he committed five penalties in one game against the Giants and was replaced at right tackle by Kendall Lamm. Davenport was at his natural left tackle spot Sunday as he replaced Rankin.
“Clearly, we’ve got to do better in that area,” Devlin said. “Losing Seantrel was a big hit in the beginning. Not having Rankin through spring, through training camp.
“Just like that, you’re kind of already shuffling around. Everybody deals with that. I’ve got to do a better job of accelerating their progress and keep finding the best matchups.”
The Texans’ line looks much different than a year ago and is considerably younger. Whether the Texans have more upside is probable. Whether they’re any better right now than last year’s oft-maligned group is debatable.
The Texans traded Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown to the Seattle Seahawks last season following a contract dispute.
They didn’t retain left tackle Chris Clark, left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo or right tackle Breno Giacomini as free agents.
They have former Notre Dame standout and second-round pick Nick Martin, their highest draft selection on the line, back from ankle surgery.
And the Texans signed former Kansas City Chiefs lineman Zach Fulton and former New Orleans Saints lineman Senio Kelemete and installed them as the new starting left and right guards, respectively.
That much change in one year is an ambitious undertaking.
“Building that continuity — we’ve, over the years, had a lot of turnover,” Devlin aid. “You’re on the money there. There’s no beating around the bush. It takes time.
“I’ve got to do a better job of accelerating some of these younger guys and hopefully, throughout the year, get them better. Every week, great fronts, great matchups, issues, so we have to continue to let the system work for us.”
The Texans rank 27th in the NFL in sack percentage, a 9.38 percent clip per passing attempt.
Shifting around hasn’t been easy on Davenport, who has the most penalties (eight) of the offensive line, but he’s maintained a positive attitude.
“I’m working as hard as I can,” said Davenport. “I’m trying to show people what I can do.”
The Texans still see a lot of potential from Davenport, but he needs to get better quickly while blocking fast pass rushers like Bills outside linebacker Jerry Hughes, a Sugar Land native.
“We had prepared him at the beginning of the season, felt like he was ready to do that,” Devlin said of Davenport playing left tackle. “When Rankin finally came back, because he just didn’t practice, I wasn’t able to get him in that swing role. All he knew was left and Julién did have experience swinging, so we had to go that route and try to get it accelerated so we could maybe do a switch type of thing.”
Meanwhile, Lamm had an encouraging game against Lawrence. In one-on-one situations, he stonewalled the Cowboys’ franchise player who had 14½ sacks last season.
“He’s been in the system now going on a while,” Devlin said. “A lot of times if you can play within the system and allow the system to work for you, it gives you a chance against really good defensive players. That’s what he did a good job of.”
As tough as it’s been for the Texans’ line, Devlin remains optimistic that they’ll ultimately turn it around.
“Obviously, they get hammered from every which way, direction, as offensive linemen, but that’s the life we live,” Devlin said. “I enjoy coaching them because of that. We’ve got to, every week, come out there with the intention to get better, grind it out and we know it’s going to be a fight every week for us up front.”