By Nick Shook
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After a miserable first half from Tom Savage, Bill O’Brien turned to his rookie quarterback on Sunday.
Watson’s first possession almost ended with an interception in the red zone, but it was negated by a Jacksonville penalty. On the ensuing play, Watson found DeAndre Hopkins on a four-yard touchdown pass over the middle for Houston’s first points of the 2017 season, capping a 14-play drive that covered 75 yards in just under six minutes.
It would be Houston’s lone trip to the end zone.
Watson ran into similar struggles from there as Jacksonville’s defense continued to relentlessly rush the passer. The rookie was strip-sacked by Dante Fowler and tossed an interception, which was nearly returned for a score by Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson.
O’Brien is no stranger to the second-half QB switch. The coach did it in 2015, replacing Ryan Mallettwith Brian Hoyer with the Texans trailing the Falcons 42-0 in the third quarter of a Week 4 loss. He did it again last year against Jacksonville in Week 15, replacing Brock Osweiler with Savage, who led Houston to a comeback win. This time, it’s Watson replacing Savage.
“The decision to go with Deshaun had more to do with could we find a spark, could we find somebody that could maybe make a play, that could escape the pocket, things like that,” O’Brien said after the game. “I thought that Tom really hung in there and played very tough. We had a hard time protecting him so I just made the decision to go with Deshaun.”
In his first start of 2017 as “the guy” for Houston, Savage was constantly harassed by Jacksonville’s swarming defense. The Jaguars piled up six first-half sacks of Savage, who rarely looked comfortable in the pocket. Calais Campbell set the Jaguars‘ single-game sack record with 3.5 sacks in the first half alone.
Savage frequently failed to escape the pocket before it collapsed around him, resulting in two forced fumbles, with one being returned for a touchdown. The quarterback also flung multiple passes into seas of defenders and was often throwing off his back foot, even when not under duress.
Whereas Savage resembled a statue awaiting demolition in the pocket, Watson offers mobility unmatched by Savage, which was immediately apparent on the rookie’s first drive. The quarterback extended plays and the possession on multiple occasions, leaving the pocket to either buy himself time to find an open man, or run for positive gains.
“(Savage) was trying to do the best he could,” O’Brien said. “It was just a decision I made I felt like to try to get something going.”
O’Brien didn’t name his Week 2 starter, but considering how poorly his offensive line played in Week 1 and the tone of O’Brien’s comments after the game — he seemed dejected for Week 1, especially when discussing how the line fared — it’s likely Watson will be the guy again in Week 2. The reason is simple: Savage doesn’t offer anything more than Watson, while the rookie brings the ability to escape pressure.
“I don’t know,” O’Brien said of his decision on a Week 2 starter. “I’ll take long, think about it a long time tonight and try to continue to work on Cincinnati, and we’ll see what the best approach is versus them.”