Deshaun Watson scans the field, darting his eyes while keeping his feet moving to create time and sightlines to find and hit the open man.
The Texans quarterback’s gaze once frequently zeroed in on a particular wide receiver he built a potent connection with.
Watson and DeAndre Hopkins had a rare chemistry, generating 264 catches, 3,343 yards and 25 touchdowns, on a 31.4-percent target rate, over the past three seasons.
When the Texans traded Hopkins to Arizona in March in exchange for a second-round draft pick and running back David Johnson, the controversial transaction dramatically changed their offense. The strategy shifted from primarily throwing it to Hopkins as their offensive centerpiece to spreading the football around to multiple targets, including newcomers Randall Cobb and Brandin Cooks.
Despite a ton of outside speed and a gifted $156 million quarterback, the Texans have only passed for four touchdowns overall with two to wide receivers. They’re averaging just 8.3 yards per passing attempt.
The Minnesota Vikings, Sunday’s opponent at NRG Stadium, executed their own high-profile offseason trade as they sent star wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a first-round draft pick and other selections.
Both Hopkins and Diggs are thriving with their new quarterbacks, Kyler Murray and Josh Allen. Hopkins, who signed a two-year, $54.5 million extension with Arizona following a contract dispute with the Texans, has caught 32 passes for 356 yards and one touchdown on 37 targets. Diggs has 20 catches for 288 yards and two scores on 28 targets.
And the Texans and Vikings, who drafted promising former LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson in the first round, have yet to win a game while their offenses adapt to these changes.
“DeAndre is a top-three player in the NFL at his position, so 100 out of 100 times you’re going to miss that kind of elite guy,” said former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, an ESPN analyst. “It’s weird because when you look at the Texans offense, they’ve got guys that they can push the ball to downfield. I thought I would see a bunch of screens and throwing to backs, so I’m surprised by how they’re utilizing people. Listen, there’s five fairly good pieces on that offense — Jordan Akins is a good tight end — but no one is elite.
“Without DeAndre, there’s no one that’s reliable that you feel really good about in any situation against any coverage that you can throw it to that guy. I’m not knocking the guys they have. They have good players, but no one you can rely on in big moments. With DeAndre, it didn’t matter if he was open. He was always open. He’s the best contested catcher in the NFL and Deshaun is still trying to adjust to him being gone.”
Watson has delivered respectable performances, but hasn’t been able to overcome a lackluster running game and a porous offensive line. Despite enduring 13 sacks, 32 hits and 46 pressures, Watson has completed 67.4 percent of his throws for 792 yards, three interceptions and a 93.8 passer rating
He’s deliberately spreading the football around. Cooks, acquired in a trade from the Rams for a second-round draft pick, hasn’t found much rhythm with Watson as they have combined for 10 completions, 138 yards and no scores on a team-high 18 targets.
“I don’t have a set guy that I want to target each and every week,” Watson said. “I just spread the ball. Whoever gets open is going to get the ball. That’s our mindset and that’s how the receivers, tight ends and running backs know.”
Cobb, signed to a three-year, $27 million free agent contract, has been a productive slot receiver with 11 catches for a team-high 177 yards and 16.1 average per catch on 13 targets. While Cobb is the leading receiver, he’s averaging only 59 yards per game.
“All the offenses I’ve ever played in it’s been multiple guys,” said Cobb, who played last season for Dallas after starting his career with Green Bay. “It’s never been one, I guess like the situation with Hop here.
“I think we have that ability here. It’s about continuing to mesh what we’re all good at and use our strengths and be able to find ways to put us in the best position to win. We’ve got the guys. We’ve just got to go out and figure out how to make it happen.”
Will Fuller has caught 12 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown on 15 targets while dealing with a hamstring injury.
Akins has emerged as a strong presence with 11 catches for 122 yards and one score on 12 targets.
Johnson hasn’t been the factor he was expected to be out of the backfield as he’s only been thrown to 11 times for seven catches and 71 yards. He’s only broken two tackles as a runner.
“Everything is hard for them on offense, and they make it harder on themselves,” Orlovsky said. “Deshaun brings it on himself a little bit. That’s part of the reason why he’s such a great player. He’ll hold it a long time to try to make a big play.
“It’s a fine line to navigate that. I would minimize some of that as a play-caller. You watch his touchdown last week Randall Cobb: snap it, catch it and the ball is out, on rhythm. Nice and simple. There have been very little layups for the Texans.”
The Texans have also lacked explosive plays with only three pass plays of over 30 yards despite having a ton of perimeter speed, including Cooks (4.33 in the 40-yard dash), Fuller (4.28) and Kenny Stills (4.38), who has just five catches for 51 yards on nine targets.
“I think they’re a little bit more diverse with the receivers,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “They’ve got terrific speed. Cooks and Fuller and Stills, they’ve all got outstanding speed. Hopkins obviously got the ball a bunch and, rightfully so, he’s a great player. Watching the tape, I don’t see that much difference.
“When Deshaun, if he sees the coverage one way, he goes the other way. Unless maybe third downs, he tried to get it to Hopkins a little bit more. I don’t see that much difference, to be honest with you, other than these guys are really fast and it puts a lot of stress on the defense.”
The Texans got off to a fast start against the Steelers and built a halftime lead, but sputtered in the second half with just 51 yards of total offense and two first downs as Watson threw nine passes.
“I think there are spurts where it looks pretty good,” offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. “You look at last week, the two-minute drive at the end of the half. Did a really good job in the passing game and multiple guys got targets there.
“You can see that there are flashes of it being really good. We just need to continue to work on the consistency of that and being able to sustain that for an entire game.”
Diggs is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and averaged 17.9 yards per reception last season before the Vikings traded him and his five-year, $72 million contract to Buffalo.
Without Diggs, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has struggled. He’s already thrown six interceptions and has a 73.8 passer rating. He still leans heavily on steady wide receiver Adam Thielen, who has 12 catches for 170 yards and three scores.
Diggs had eight catches of 40-plus yards last season, tying him for the most in the league. Jefferson has deep-threat capabilities, too, but lacks experience.
“I do think it takes young guys some time to get in rhythm with everything,” Zimmer said. “We just know that his athletic ability and talent that he has, we needed to get him in there. I think it’s going to continue to get better and better. I think Kirk has a good feeling about Justin.”
There’s reason for optimism because of Jefferson. He’s coming off his breakout game, catching seven passes for 175 yards with a 71 yard-touchdown catch in a loss to the Titans.
“After trading Diggs, Jefferson showed a lot with his route running and deep cross concepts this last game,” Orlovsky said. “He’s not as impactful as Stefon Diggs is or would have been for the Vikings. Kirk knew who Stefon Diggs was, what he was and wasn’t good at, what routes he could run and felt comfortable with. He knows very little about Justin Jefferson, so he has to figure that out. This past week is a really good stepping stone and growth point for him as an individual.
“Kirk has got to stop giving the ball away. It seems like he’s almost playing too fast, like watching a teenager, herky-jerky with no rhythm. And he’s a rhythm player.”