Takeaways: Texans top Bengals in Watson’s first start

So many of the best moments in Houston Texans franchise history have comes against the Cincinnati Bengals. Add quarterback Deshaun Watson‘s first NFL victory to the list.

Watson rushed for a 49-yard touchdown in the first half and helped the seal the team’s 13-9 victory with a clock-chewing field-goal drive in the fourth quarter. The Texans‘ offense was rarely pretty, but avoiding an 0-2 start is a beautiful thing for a team that has been through so much over the last three weeks since Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. Here’s what we learned Thursday night:

1. Texans coach Bill O’Brien called a very conservative game, especially after Watson nearly threw a few interceptions early. But Watson’s ability to improvise on a Madden ’17-like third-and-long scamper late in the second quarter reminded everyone why he played over Week 1 starter Tom Savage. While the speed of the game looked too fast for Watson for much of the game — he averaged fewer than five yards per attempt on 24 throws — it was impressive that Watson saved his best for last: A 13-play drive in the fourth quarter that took up more than six minutes to give the Texans some breathing room.

“It’s a dream come true. It’s what I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” Watson told sideline reporter Heather Cox after the game, before surely embarking on a quest to celebrate his 22nd birthday in style.

2. Let’s be clear: Watson was fairly low on the list of reasons the Texans won this game. Texansdefensive end J.J. Watt ended the game with an emphatic tackle during Cincinnati’s final play, a fitting conclusion to a game where Watt threw his muscle around. After not quite looking like himself in his first game back from back surgery in the season opener, Watt disrupted the Bengals‘ offense consistently in both the running game and when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton went back to pass.

3. Dalton has experienced a nightmarish two games to start the season. He missed a handful of open throws throughout the night and appeared almost too cautious after throwing four interceptions in Week 1. His final two throws on Cincinnati’s last true drive were telling. He threw the ball away on third-and-4 rather than give his receiver a chance. Then Dalton overshot his intended target Alex Erickson on a decisive fourth down, again not allowing his wideout to even compete for the ball.

This is a historically poor start for the Bengals‘ offense. The team has scored nine points in the first two games, the fewest since the 2009 Rams. The Bengals are the first team since the 1939 Eagles to play their first two games of the season at home and score zero touchdowns in both games. Starting the season 0-2 at home is a brutal hole to climb out of and the schedule doesn’t get any easier with a trip to Green Bay in Week 3.

4. No, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is not thinking of changing quarterbacks. He confirmed after the game Dalton’s job is secure.

“I don’t think he’s taken a step back,” Lewis said. “I think we have to continue to let Andy do his thing.”

5. The stagnant Bengals offense ruined a terrific effort by Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who was the best player on the field. The Texans shored up some of their protection problems on the edge with extra linemen, but there was no stopping Atkins bum-rushing through the interior on the way to two sacks, three quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. It’s remarkable that the Bengals defense has held its opponents under 300 yards two straight weeks and don’t have a win to show for it.

6. Dalton’s night was particularly disappointing because the Texans‘ secondary was vulnerable. Houston lost both starting cornerbacks, Johnathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson, to injuries in the game. Yet Dalton couldn’t take advantage, struggling to find a consistent secondary receiver behind A.J. Green.

7. The Bengals‘ running back use continues to be mystifying. The team only committed to getting rookie Joe Mixon on the field when they absolutely needed to late in the game. He looked like the team’s best pure runner, but it was too late to make an impact. Giovani Bernard has dominated the snaps and contributed to the Bengalsnot converting in short-yardage situations.

8. This will be a great learning experience for Watson. The Bengals‘ defense dared him to change the play and throw on a few short third downs and Watson didn’t make them pay. The passing attack should only open up from here. In the meantime, O’Brien will continue to try to win ugly games in this suddenly defense-dominated NFL.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at the result. The Texans beat the Bengals for both of their first two playoff victories in franchise history, then beat Cincinnati on Christmas Eve last year to clinch the AFC South title. They can only hope that this is the first win in a career where Watson makes everyone forget about O’Brien’s Wheel-O-Quarterbacks.

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