Deshaun Watson's performance through two games so far this season has been as sturdy as a two-legged moose on a frozen lake. Lots of excuses have been made for his ineffectiveness — some valid, some not. We're going to go deep on this, while we hope he remembers how to.
Many throws are there that he isn't making; many of the ones he is making aren't finding their target. The idea that he missed a lot of time between 2021 and 2022 is a dead horse that continues to be beaten with a toothbrush. Let's try to be less lazy than that and analyze what specifically is the root of what we see and don't see on the field.
What he sees and doesn't see on the field is an excellent place to start. Choosing to break the pocket when there's a throw to be made tends to be a symptom of lacking the in-game confidence to execute the throw even when the correct read is made. Other issues can arise from this sort of indecisiveness as well. We've seen it several times this year already; one great example is 3rd and 8 from Pittsburgh's 25.
Elijah Moore is the X on this play; he's the split end to the shortside of the field. And with the ball on the hash at the snap, the throw has to get to him in a brief window as the top of his out-breaking route quickly leads him to the boundary.
The Steelers show double A-gap pressure pre-snap while Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) walks down into the box behind T.J. Watt (90) and over David Njoku, who's off the ball tight to the formation (technically the H) on Moore's side of the field. Whether Keanu Neal (31) and Cole Holcomb (55) come up the middle or drop out is largely irrelevant, as there's no overload.
Watson correctly identifies 39 as not playing under and also that Moore has a free release against cover 3; he's already made his decision, and it isn't wrong versus the look. Njoku will have more dudes in his area than D-block at the penitentiary. Because of that, there's nothing to see on this side of the field other than Moore against Joey Porter Jr. (24).
As the ball is snapped, 90 bails into the curl/comeback, 31 races for position atop Njoku's stick route, 39 runs into 90 while crashing toward the line, and it pretty much looks like a soup sandwich for Pittsburgh. So why doesn't the play work for Watson and the Browns?
Watson hits his back foot seemingly knowing what will happen on the X-side of the field. But he takes an extra quarter hitch before beginning his throwing motion. NFL windows are such that a fraction of a second is the difference between 1st and goal at the 10 and a 43-yard field goal attempt. Watson's tardiness allowed 24 to get back into a play he was out of; he meets Moore at the catch point and a PBU is born.
Watson either doesn't trust himself or he doesn't trust his receivers to be in the right place. If he had trusted what he saw, and trusted that Moore's break would happen where it was supposed to, he wouldn't have been late; he would've been decisive and let it rip.
Fortunately for Browns fans, the foregoing description of Watson lacking in-game confidence is something that can be ironed out as rapport develops and trust is built: repetition breeds belief. On the other side of that optimism, it shouldn't take this long to get comfortable. Watson's been with Cleveland for well over a year now and has thrown nine touchdowns in eight games. He threw 19 TDs in 6.5 games as a rookie. So how does Stella get her groove back?
Let's have some plays where there is essentially no decision to be made at all and see if we can get that right. Seems like a good way to start a game, doesn't it? Great. So we'll start off with an easy completion to pick up some yards and get in a rhythm.
It's 1st and 10 from the Browns' 25. Well that was an interception that went back for six. No bueno. Even though they put Alex Highsmith (56) in conflict with inside leverage to a stick concept, which against man becomes a 1 (out-breaking) route, the whole thing ends up as wrong as tweed elbow patches on a leather jacket. And it's much easier to decipher what went wrong on this play by going through the time warp to see how it's supposed to look when they flip it wideside and run that exact concept again.
So now it's 2nd and 4 from their own 45 with David Bell as the slot and the primary, and Amari Cooper as the X to Bell's right. Pittsburgh has their nickelback, Chandon Sullivan (34), creeping toward Bell's inside shoulder just prior to the snap. By this time Watson has already determined that the weakside (X-side) of the field is where he's going with the football, and it doesn't matter if 34 crashes or not because there's only one press defender playside.
Cooper comes off the line like his socks are on fire which keeps the cover 4 high corner at depth and on his heels preparing to pedal. Both receivers hit the top of their stems at six yards and the ball is already in the air. Bell catches it a shade beyond the 50 (yes, that concept is designed to have both weakside routes at almost the same depth). He takes it vertical immediately, rather than ducking beneath Cooper, and the play picks up 13.
This route combination is common (though it doesn't always look this clumsy) because it works against man and zone and can be done with any personnel grouping; they ran it out of 13 (three TEs) the first time with Nick Chubb clearing out of the backfield on pre-snap motion high to the strongside, and on the very next drive they ran it out of four wide.
The main cause of the pick six appeared to be an errant throw — about which there isn't much room for extending to Watson the benefit of the doubt, as he's been wildly inaccurate at times recently even when the O-line keeps him clean. But what isn't evident on the broadcast is that the ball is tipped at the line by DeMarvin Leal (98); a different camera angle that wasn't shown live is needed to pick up on the slight change in trajectory the ball takes in flight.
Should Watson have been able to avoid 98's outstretched fingertips? Maybe. But the pass was still catchable. And Harrison Bryant made a bad throw worse by popping it up in the air like a cartoon toaster. The second time around, it was executed to the desired result.
There's no question Watson needs to improve at some of the things that should be second nature to a player with his high-caliber ability. Mistakes will always happen; currently there are far too many though. And they aren't all due to accuracy and decision-making, but those are the key antagonists in his Browns story to this point.
When Watson's broken the pocket recently, more often than not, he's been running with his head low — rather than with his eyes downfield. There are two primary reasons for it when a QB runs to run as opposed to scrambling to buy time and find an open receiver. The first is that when the play breaks down he has trouble focusing on more than one task at a time. That's never been a problem for Watson before, and it seems like an odd trait for a person to just lose and not be able to find; that type of innate ability shouldn't get lost like a set of car keys.
The second common reason is two-pronged itself, and it again is frequently a symptom of trust. A quarterback who trusts his own legs more than his receivers' hands is more likely to look for the sticks than a teammate when he tucks it. And if he trusts his arm less than his legs there's not much coming from within to talk him out of doing so.