Breaking down Deshaun Watson's slow start
After three games completed on the Clemson schedule, the results for QB Deshaun Watson have been much closer to average than was anticipated after an impressive 2014 season. While the schedule has matched the team with a trio of underperforming programs, the Tigers have effectively countered Watson’s slow start with surprisingly tight defense.
Before we begin dismantling the Clemson quarterback, it must be pointed out that their supposed No. 1 receiver, Mike Williams, has missed all but the team’s opening quarter with a fractured vertebra. In 2014, Williams racked up 28.9 percent of his receiving yardage on 20-plus yard passes after securing nine-of-11 catchable deep passes for three TDs, and averaging 18.1 yards per reception.
As for Watson, he has a combined +1.1 overall (50th out of 171) and -0.3 passing-specific PFF grades (58th out of 171) in victories over Wofford, Appalachian State, and Louisville. Despite the underwhelming performances, Watson has seen his receivers only drop three catchable passes en route to a 74.0 completion percentage (3rd in the nation) and a 78.9 accuracy percentage (10th in the country).
In 2014, Watson used his precision passing to place national ranks of fifth in completion percentage (67.9 percent) and 19th in accuracy percentage (74.8 percent). Consideration for the slow start to 2015 must be made for the departure of Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who installed the fast-paced, spread offense upon his arrival in 2011. The offense was also forced to replace four starters along the offensive line and the new group has responded by averaging seven penalties per game — ranking them 75th after three games.
Only three starters returned from last years top-rated defense, but Clemson has transcended that expected weakness to enter the 23rd-ranked total defense in the country (260.7 yards allowed per game). The 39th-ranked rushing defense has allowed 114.7 yards per game and only 2.92 yards per rushing attempt average. Impressively, the defense has only permitted opposing offenses to convert 9-of-46 third down attempts (11th-best), while lessoning the damage of Watson’s three interceptions by collecting the sixth-most turnovers (six), and recording the 11h-most tackles-for-loss per game at 9.3.
Clemson lost a top-flight edge rusher in Vic Beasley, but the presence of Shaq Lawson has proven more than capable of bearing the weight of guiding the defense. Last season, Lawson produced an impressive 83.4 PFF run-defense rating with a run-stop percentage that would have placed him tied for first in the nation with qualified snaps. After three games, Lawson has produced an +11.1 overall PFF grade, the 9th-best pass rush productivity (12.3 percent), and the 27th-best stop percentage (10.8 percent) out of 159 qualified 4-3 defensive ends.
Joining Lawson, Clemson defenders that have stepped into the spotlight include DBs Jaron Kearse (+9.8), T.J. Green (+2.4), LBs B.J. Goodson (+7.1), Ben Boulware (+6.4), and DE Kevin Dodd (+6.5). Given time to re-establish a pecking order among a highly-talented group of receivers, Watson should be more than capable of finding his rhythm.