Of­fen­sive line find­ing its bear­ings af­ter state of flux

Changes in per­son­nel, abun­dance of in­juries slowly be­ing rec­on­ciled as sea­son pro­gresses

Houston Chronicle - - SPORTS - By Aaron Wil­son STAFF WRITER

Re­peat­edly pum­meled to the ground, Tex­ans quar­ter­back De­shaun Wat­son was nearly hid­den un­der­neath a pile of bodies dur­ing an over­time vic­tory Sun­day over the Dal­las Cow­boys.

Wat­son wasn’t only vul­ner­a­ble in the pocket. He also chal­lenged de­fend­ers on the run and ab­sorbed a lot of pun­ish­ment, enough bru­tal hits that he has been lim­ited in prac­tice all week with a chest in­jury and is re­garded as a ques­tion mark for Sun­day’s game against the Buf­falo Bills.

Yet the Dal­las game ac­tu­ally rep­re­sents in­cre­men­tal progress for an over­hauled of­fen­sive line that has strug­gled all sea­son. The Tex­ans al­lowed one sack and that was when Wat­son was tack­led for a loss on a quar­ter­back keeper. He was hit 10 times on pass­ing at­tempts.

For the sea­son, pass pro­tec­tion has been ex­tremely shoddy. Wat­son al­ready has been sacked 17 times and hit 53 times.

The scary part: This could be much worse, if not for Wat­son’s trade­mark mo­bil­ity and elu­sive­ness.

“He re­ally hides a lot of sins for us up front, to be quite hon­est,” of­fen­sive line coach Mike Devlin said. “I say one thing: De­shaun makes us a bet­ter of­fen­sive line and De­shaun makes me a bet­ter O-line coach.”

While the Tex­ans im­proved against the Cow­boys as they con­tained star pass rusher De­Mar­cus Lawrence, the dif­fi­culty of the line’s si­t­u­a­tion can’t be un­der­stated.

At a po­si­tion that re­quires con­ti­nu­ity, the Bills game rep­re­sents the first time this sea­son the Tex­ans will start the same of­fen­sive line con­fig­u­ra­tion in con­sec­u­tive weeks.

When right tackle Seantrel Hen­der­son broke his an­kle in the sea­son opener, it trig­gered a line

shuf­fle the Tex­ans clearly weren’t ready for.

Left tackle Julién Daven­port shifted to the right side, but he had pre­pared the en­tire off­sea­son to play on the left. Rookie Marti­nas Rankin had missed a lot of time with a foot in­jury that re­quired surgery and was forced to start on the left side.

Daven­port was sub­se­quently benched against the In­di­anapo­lis Colts af­ter he com­mit­ted five penal­ties in one game against the New York Giants and was re­placed at right tackle by Ken­dall Lamm. Daven­port was at his nat­u­ral left tackle spot Sun­day, re­plac­ing Rankin.

“Clearly, we’ve got to do bet­ter in that area,” Devlin said. “Los­ing Seantrel was a big hit in the be­gin­ning. Not hav­ing Rankin through spring, through train­ing camp. Just like that, you’re kind of al­ready shuf­fling around. Ev­ery­body deals with that. I’ve got to do a bet­ter job of ac­cel­er­at­ing their progress and keep find­ing the best matchups.”

The Tex­ans’ line looks much dif­fer­ent than a year ago and is con­sid­er­ably younger. Whether the Tex­ans have more up­side is prob­a­ble. Whether they’re any bet­ter right now than last year’s oft-ma­ligned group is de­bat­able.

The Tex­ans traded Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown to the Seat­tle Seahawks last sea­son fol­low­ing a con­tract dis­pute. They didn’t re­tain left tackle Chris Clark, left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo or right tackle Breno Gi­a­co­mini.

They do have for­mer Notre Dame stand­out and sec­ond-round pick Nick Martin, their high­est draft se­lec­tion on the line, back from an­kle surgery. And the Tex­ans signed for­mer Kansas City Chiefs line­man Zach Ful­ton and for­mer New Or­leans Saints line­man Se­nio Kelemete and in­stalled them as the new start­ing left and right guards, re­spec­tively.

That much change in one year is an am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing.

“Build­ing that con­ti­nu­ity — we’ve, over the years, had a lot of turnover,” Devlin aid. “There’s no beat­ing around the bush. It takes time. I’ve got to do a bet­ter job of ac­cel­er­at­ing some of these younger guys and hope­fully, through­out the year, get them bet­ter. Ev­ery week, great fronts, great matchups, is­sues, so we have to con­tinue to let the sys­tem work for us.”

The Tex­ans rank 27th in the NFL in sack per­cent­age, a 9.38 per­cent clip per pass­ing at­tempt.

Shift­ing around hasn’t been easy on Daven­port, who has the most penal­ties (eight) of the line, but he has main­tained a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude.

“I’m work­ing as hard as I can,” said Daven­port. “I’m try­ing to show peo­ple what I can do.”

The Tex­ans still see a lot of po­ten­tial from Daven­port, but he needs to get bet­ter quickly while block­ing fast pass rush­ers like Bills out­side line­backer Jerry Hughes, a Sugar Land na­tive.

“We had pre­pared him at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son, felt like he was ready to do that,” Devlin said of Daven­port play­ing left tackle. “When Rankin fi­nally came back, be­cause he just didn’t prac­tice, I wasn’t able to get him in that swing role. All he knew was left and Julién did have ex­pe­ri­ence swing­ing, so we had to go that route and try to get it ac­cel­er­ated so we could maybe do a switch type of thing.”

Mean­while, Lamm had an en­cour­ag­ing game against Lawrence. In oneon-one sit­u­a­tions, he stonewalled the Cow­boys’ fran­chise player who had 14½ sacks last sea­son.

“He’s been in the sys­tem now go­ing on a while,” Devlin said. “A lot of times if you can play within the sys­tem and al­low the sys­tem to work for you, it gives you a chance against re­ally good de­fen­sive play­ers. That’s what he did a good job of.”

As tough as it has been for the Tex­ans’ line, Devlin re­mains op­ti­mistic they’ll ul­ti­mately turn it around.

“Ob­vi­ously, they get ham­mered from ev­ery which way, di­rec­tion, as of­fen­sive line­men, but that’s the life we live,” Devlin said. “I en­joy coach­ing them be­cause of that.

“We’ve got to, ev­ery week, come out there with the in­ten­tion to get bet­ter, grind it out and we know it’s go­ing to be a fight ev­ery week for us up front.”

Brett Coomer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

It has be­come com­mon­place for Tex­ans quar­ter­back De­shaun Wat­son to need a help­ing hand from Julién Daven­port and the of­fen­sive line fol­low­ing a play.

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