BEREA, Ohio — Deshaun Watson admitted that his return to Houston last week hit him more emotionally than expected in Sunday’s 27-14 victory over the Texans.
“Yeah, I think last week, it was a lot,” Watson said Wednesday. “The anticipation to just be back on the field, the anticipation of going back to my former team, the anticipation of playing against former teammates and being in front of a crowd that used to cheer for me at the time. So all that stuff was definitely, it was a lot.
“I’m human so I definitely have things running through my mind and through my soul in general. But I’m glad that’s out of the way and I’m glad we got to win and I’m just trying to look forward to this week. It’s gonna be a hostile environment in Cincinnati. It’s gonna be fun and we’ve just gotta go out there and just make sure we execute the game plan.”
Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt admitted that Watson had a lot on his plate in his return to Houston, where he spent the first five seasons of his career, and where most of the more than two dozen allegations of sexual misconduct took place.
“I think it is a little bit of weight lifted off his shoulders and to be able to go into a different town now as a starter in your second start,” Van Pelt said. “Again, there was a lot on his plate going into that game both on the field and off. Now that we got that one under the belt, expect to see strides each week. Yeah, there were definitely some things that we have addressed, and he has worked really hard to improve those this week.”
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Watson, who completed 12-of-31 attempts for 131 with no touchdowns and one interception for a 53.4 rating, has reason to believe he’ll be a lot better in Week 2 in Cincinnati that he was in Houston, where many of his passes were low, and he bounced one at Amari Cooper’s feet. He also rushed a throw in the end zone and was picked off by safety Jalen Pitre on a pass intended for Cooper.
Why is he confident things will be better on Sunday in Cincinnati against the 8-4 Bengals?
“Because I was able to get the feel of the game and the speed of the game and how defenses adjust, how we are going to be able to adjust at the same time. It’s my first time in a live action with Kevin (Stefanski), so he’s gotta feel how I feel,” Watson said. “I gotta feel how he feels and we gotta be able to work on the same page and see the same thing through the same lenses. So it was fun to be out there, excited that we got the team win and we’re looking forward to try to get another one this week.”
Watson acknowledged that sprinting from drill to drill on Wednesday and Thursday was an effort to simulate the speed of the game and get his mind and body in synch.
“Most definitely,” he said. “Just mind, body, everything. Just getting my conditioning going, wearing pads running, being able to move because in practice and training camp, I didn’t really scramble much, so in a live action being able to have to scramble and then come back and then do another play, call the play in the huddle, operate, sometimes hand it off, sometimes do a pass play. I gotta make sure that my conditioning is up. So any way I can just try to improve that, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Given the 700 days off, everything was adjustment, especially in the place he called home for five years.
“I wouldn’t say (the game was) fast, it was just mostly just being able to adjust,” he said. “Like I said before, just really just the conditioning level, being able to go out there and operate, see things like I’ve been seeing it before and then get on the same page with the whole offensive staff of what we want to do for the game plan to execute.”
As an anticipatory thrower, he found it tough to gauge the timing with his receivers, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Cooper, David Bell and Anthony Schwartz. This game, he’ll also have tight end David Njoku back from his knee injury.
“Every receiver is different, especially on different routes with DPJ and Coop and D.Bell, all those guys are different route runners. So being able to know how they’re gonna come out, when they’re gonna come out, how they’re gonna come out and where they’re gonna be, it takes a little bit of time. But I gotta be able to adjust quickly, especially if you want to be successful. And that’s my mindset is just trying to get extra reps, watch extra tape and just let them know what I’m thinking and try to see what they’re thinking on certain routes.”
Van Pelt is confident he’ll start to see the real Watson emerge soon — the three-time Pro Bowler that he is — because he’s seen it so many times before.
“His past history would say that he’s a lot of those things that you didn’t see,” Van Pelt said. “He’s those things. Those will come back as we get more reps and more game experience with him. Again, it was kind of what we expected with some rust there, and that’s real. Just the work he’s put in this week to improve those areas has already shown up.”
Now that he’s seen where Watson’s game is, he’ll have a better idea of how to install the gameplan for him.
“As hard as you work, no matter what you do to try to simulate game reps is really impossible,” he said. “Just little things from shortening the drop a bit, not getting as deep in the pocket and keeping your feet under you and balanced, things like that we have worked on this week.”
Van Pelt indicated that Watson may have been a little less ready to roll than the Browns thought.
“I wasn’t really sure of the level of rust (laughter),” he said. “He got better as the game went on. He really made some good plays. He did some great things with his legs, avoided pressure and threw some really nice balls at times, and then other times, it didn’t come out of his hand the way he wanted it to. You see what it looks like when it is all pretty and it looks right. I think that is what we will start to see more of moving forward.”
Even left guard Joel Bitonio was struck by the magnitude of Watson’s layoff after the game.
“I was thinking about it and I was like, 700 days is a long time to not play a football game at full speed,” he said. “You don’t get hit in practice, feel the pressure as much. There’s gonna be pressure moments and stuff like that. I’ve seen him play at a high, high level before and so I think the rust coming off is not gonna be a question of if it ever does, it’s just gonna be when.
“It might take a little while to get used to it and get used to the scheme and the players you’re playing with all that stuff. I mean everything’s new to him. So I think we understood where we’re at. I was very happy to get the win because the defense and special teams really stepped up for us, it was really a team effort in that fact. But we have all the confidence in him. We know he is a great player. We know it’s gonna happen. It just takes some time sometimes.”
Bitonio didn’t think the booing was “too crazy” because it’s always loud on the road when they take the field. In fact, he expects the Browns to get booed in Cincinnati on Sunday. But he acknowledged that the return to Houston was different than most players returning to their previous teams.
“It’s emotional,” he said. “We always talk about revenge games for guys going back to teams they played in the past. That’s a whole other aspect of it, too. That’s where his career was. That’s where he started. He had tons of people there and stuff like that. It’s a distraction as well. It’s all a part of it. It’s all a part of shaking off the rust. We have a lot of confidence in him and his ability to bounce back and grow from week to week.”
Van Pelt said Watson saw the field well in Houston, which is a good place to start.
“He understood what he was facing, what he saw and the coverage they gave him,” Van Pelt said. “I don’t think that was an issue at all.”
He acknowledged that the Browns have added in more opportunities for Watson to run this game, which could be a confidence boost while his passing game rounds back into shape.
“There might be certain concepts he’s not as comfortable with that maybe (QB) Jacoby (Brissett) had comfort levels with that we ran a lot earlier,” Van Pelt said. “Those may go to the back a little bit and get some of the thoughts, ideas and concepts that he is familiar with up to the front of the list.”
As for more designed runs and run-pass options, Watson plans to let the game come to him.
“If it allows me to make plays with my feet and my legs then I’m gonna do that,” he said. “If I need to sit in the pocket and make the throws, I’m gonna do that. So I can’t go into a game thinking I’m gonna do one more than the other. I just gotta let the game come to me so we can try to be successful.”
He’s not feeling the pressure of a must-win game in his second week with the 5-7 Browns.
“Every game is a must-win as we think about it in our locker room,” he said. “We try to be 1-0 each and every week regardless if it’s Week 1, regardless if it’s Week 17 or Week 14. Every week is a must-win because you don’t want to go out there thinking that ‘hey, if we don’t win this, it doesn’t matter.’ Every team is very, very good. Every team is talented in the NFL.
“Everyone is getting paid to do their job and everyone wants to have a job next year regardless of how much you’re getting paid or you’re not. So every week is a must win, and we are going into this situation ready to win and just go out there and play ball.”
He knows that he’s facing a much better team than he did in his debut. The Bengals have won four straight and six of their last seven since losing to the Browns 32-13 on Halloween night.
“They’re playing really good football overall, everything, defense, offense, you gotta give them credit and they’ve been doing everything that they needed to do to pull out the wins, big wins especially,” Watson said. “And we just gotta go in there and make sure that we have a sense of urgency and we gotta go out there and try to slow them down offensively and then we gotta put up points and that’s the biggest thing.
“So you know, you gotta give Cincinnati credit and they’re doing a heck of a job to finish wins and finish games and we gotta go in there and try to get ourselves a win.”
In a duel with Joe Burrow, who’s 0-4 against the Browns, Watson just plans to do his thing.
“I know they have a great guy that went to the Super Bowl, he is playing hot right now and, like I said, you gotta give Joe Burrow all the credit,” he said. “But at the same time, my only focus is trying to find whatever that defensive weakness is and just try to score points for the Cleveland Browns. And the defense, they have to take care of all that. So for me it’s just mostly just focusing on that defense.”