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Seahawks-Texans preview: Deshaun Watson’s excellence and other things to watch for

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Seattle Seahawks v Houston Texans Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks, winners of three straight, return to CenturyLink Field for the first time since Oct. 1 to take on the entertaining Houston Texans. The Seahawks will have future Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney suiting up for them for the first time, and will likely have cornerback Jeremy Lane back and healthy as well.

The Texans are fresh off their bye week and at 3-3 looking to keep pace with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Undeterred by losing both J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus in the same game, Houston has been carried by a quarterback finally capable of properly distributing the ball in a balanced offense, with two serviceable running backs. On defense, they’re missing as many important pieces as they have remaining. Out is Watt, Mercilus, Brian Cushing and Dylan Cole, while Kevin Johnson should return for the Texans joining a defense still boasting Jadeveon Clowney, Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. Their secondary’s play is one of six things to watch for in week eight:

Will Kareem Jackson shadow Doug Baldwin?

At their peak in 2016, the Houston’s secondary had four versatile cornerbacks capable of covering the entire field. In nickel packages, Johnson would come on the field and line up outside, with Jackson sliding into the slot. For most of 2017 however, they’ve been depleted. Johnson has played just three games and AJ Bouye signed with the Jaguars in the offseason. On Sunday in Seattle, they should be back to full health.

Johnson’s return enables the Texans to go back to what worked for them in 2016, with Jackson covering the slot. That comes at a great time, what with Doug Baldwin destroying people’s souls from the slot on a weekly basis. Jackson’s coming off his best game of the season in week six against the Cleveland Browns, allowing just two catches on four targets for 27 yards. He’ll have his hands full if he’s going to line up across from Baldwin all game long, but he’ll provide a better option than Joseph, Johnson or Marcus Williams, who was cut by the New York Jets on Oct. 10 and then played in 49 snaps for Houston two weeks later.

Can the Seahawks slow down Deshaun Watson?

It can’t be overstated how much relief Bill O’Brien and the Texans must feel after seeing Watson’s first couple months as an NFL quarterback. The same staff that had to watch Brock Osweiler skip passes to receiver’s feet last year now has the pleasure of watching Watson thrill. They went from crawling on their hands and knees to driving a Ferrari, and all it took was $72-million and a handful of draft picks.

Through five starts, Watson has as many passing touchdowns (15) as Osweiler had all of last season. He’s added two more with his legs, and is on pace for 40 total touchdowns -- what would be a rookie record. He’s sixth in the league in passer rating at 101.1, a number that jumps up to 121.9 off of play action (the fourth best in the league). If his passer rating stays above 100 for the rest of the season, he would be one of just five quarterbacks post-merger to post a passer rating over 100 (minimum 150 attempts). Most impressively, he has the ninth-highest ANY/A in the league despite having a sack percentage higher than Wilson’s.

More than that, he’s displayed composure that’s usually lacking for rookies at quarterback. His interception rate of 2.9 is lower than the past two MVPs in Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. He’s already proved to a huge threat with his legs, averaging 7.2 yards per carry, and his ability to escape the pocket up the middle of the field is second to just Prescott. Watson will face his biggest test yet this weekend, coming into the league’s loudest venue to face a defense allowing an opposing passer rating of just 69.9 this season.

Seattle’s defense has to bend, not break

Of all Watson’s achievements after five starts, his mistake-free football on the opponent’s goal line is perhaps the scariest. Consider this: inside his opponent’s 10-yard line this season, Watson has thrown 11 passes. Nine of those 11 passes have been touchdowns. That level of execution would be impressive for any quarterback, but for a rookie not even halfway through his first season? Unbelievable. But like any great quarterback, he needs a great touchdown maker, and DeAndre Hopkins is exactly that for Houston. Just like Watson, Hopkins has been lethal inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. His production down there looks like this: Five targets, five receptions, five touchdowns.

Can the Seahawks pressure Watson consistently?

In week six against the Browns, we got a glimpse of a possible weakness in Watson’s game. Under pressure he completed just four of 12 attempts, for 92 yards, a touchdown and an interception. If pressure is the key to rattling Watson, this game comes at just the right time for Seattle.

Houston’s Duane Brown returned to the facility on Monday after a holdout that stretched well into the regular season, but he may not be ready to play on Sunday after working off to the side during practice early this week. In his absence, right tackle Chris Clark slid over to the left and has been adequate, but he has a calf injury and may not play against the Seahawks either. The third man in all of this is Breno Giacomini, who has started at right tackle this season and played the exact kind of football he played during his time in Seattle. If either Clark or Brown can’t go on Sunday (reports indicate Brown will play), Giacomini would remain in the lineup. Regardless of the five linemen they trot out on Sunday, the Texans’ offensive line play has been a glaring weakness in 2017 and the Seahawks should be able to take advantage.

Houston’s two-headed monster at receiver

In Will Fuller and Hopkins, the Texans have two receivers who offer completely different things, complementing one another perfectly. Fuller is one of the league’s most dangerous deep threats and Houston loves getting him to stretch the field, either vertically or horizontally. And Hopkins is a nightmare, physical, with out-of-this-world body control and a great ability to box out defenders.

Will Fuller’s presence alone means so much to the Texans’ offense, and their last three games reflect that. In three games without Fuller this season, Houston’s scored 53 points. In three games with Fuller, they’ve scored 124. He has eight catches on the season, and five touchdowns. Fuller’s speed forces defenses to make a choice. Hopkins will abuse cornerbacks if left on an island, but moving a safety to his side means exposing the opposite cornerback, and giving Fuller the opportunity to get a step on his defender and go untouched on a vertical route.

Richard Sherman is likely the best option in the league to go one-on-one with Hopkins, possessing the physicality to compete against even the most physically dominant receivers. In that case, Earl Thomas can shade over to Shaquill Griffin and Will Fuller’s side, and provide a safety blanket against a game-breaker.

Can Seattle run the ball?

Thirteenth in rushing yards per game allowed with 107.2 and ninth in run defense by DVOA, it’s been another solid season for the Texans. But Houston’s defense has struggled recently against the run, giving up 134 yards to the Browns and 127 the week before against the Chiefs. Their form hasn’t been the same since losing both Watt and Mercilus (no surprise there), but Sunday will give the Seahawks another chance at getting someone in the backfield going.

Rawls appeared to be the ‘back with the most juice last Sunday against the New York Giants, but I expect him to continue sharing the load with Eddie Lacy until one of them grabs ahold of the position. It’s tough to know what Rawls has left after such an injury plagued year, but if the player he was in 2015 is still there, Sunday will be the day we see it.

Seattle is getting a team at home on Sunday that hasn’t peaked yet, and a rookie quarterback that is growing every week. These two teams matchup against one another really well, and it’s going to take another promising game from the Seahawks to win their fourth straight game.