HOUSTON — Ask Oakland’s Jon Gruden about Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson and he sounds more like the president of Watson’s fan club than an opposing coach.
“Everybody that meets Watson likes Watson,” he said. “I get accused of liking everybody ... but if you don’t like Deshaun Watson, you don’t like anybody. You’re a miserable human being if you don’t like this kid. The room lights up when he walks in.”
Gruden’s enthusiasm about Watson is only slightly dampened this week as the Raiders (3-3) prepare to visit the Texans (4-3) on Sunday.
“Unfortunately for us, he’s really turned into an all-around superstar quarterback,” Gruden said. “He’s throwing the ball better than I’ve ever seen him throw it, and he’s still a real threat to run and they can be creative with the playbook because of his skillset.”
Watson will try and bounce back after throwing two interceptions for the second straight week in a 30-23 loss to Indianapolis last week which knocked Houston out of first place in the AFC South.
Despite his recent miscues, Watson keeps showing his ability to be a dynamic playmaker in his third NFL season. Watson has thrown for 300 yards or more three times this season and has thrown two touchdown passes or more in three games.
Coach Bill O’Brien has been impressed with Watson’s improvement.
“He’s an excellent player,” O’Brien said. “He’s a great guy to coach. He learns, he gets better every day. He’s got a great attitude. He’s very, very smart when it comes to all the things that go into our offense. He’s done a great job for us this year.”
While Houston looks to Watson as a star for its offense, the Raiders have found a new offensive standout this season in their running game.
Gruden has always liked to have a featured runner as the backbone of his offense and he has appeared to find one with rookie Josh Jacobs. The 24th overall pick in the draft has topped 120 yards rushing the past two games and leads all rookies with 554 yards rushing and four TDs on the ground. He’s also played a bigger part in the passing game in recent weeks.
Jacobs is dealing with a shoulder injury this week but figures to be counted on against a defense that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher for 23 straight regular-season games.
“When he’s running like he’s running, you have to feed the beast,” Gruden said. “He’s hungry. He doesn’t want to come out of the game either. This guy wants to be a great back.”
Watson and Oakland receiver Hunter Renfrow are forever linked for combining to make perhaps the biggest play in Clemson history. Watson connected with Renfrow on a 2-yard touchdown pass with 1 second left to lift the Tigers to a 35-31 win over Alabama to win the national title in 2017. Their win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide gave Clemson its first title since 1981.
Watson has worn No. 4 and Renfrow No. 13 since college. They think so fondly of their 4/13 Clemson connection that they have marked April 13 as a time to remember their accomplishment.
“I mean, 4/13 is a day that — especially for us two, but for the whole Clemson nation that we’ll never forget,” Watson said. “That’s the day he got married, too. Everything just ties together as one big family, as one big day, really. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Raiders rookie cornerback Trayvon Mullen will get a tough, but familiar, test when he makes his first career start against former Clemson teammate Watson. Mullen is moving into the starting lineup after Oakland traded Gareon Conley to Houston earlier in the week. Mullen has played just 14 defensive snaps the past three weeks. But he spent plenty of time going up against Watson in practice in college in 2016.
“I can say it made me better for that time that I was there,” Mullen said. “Watching him and being that freshman in college and the type of player he was, I know for sure he made me better in practice when I did have the opportunity to go against him.”
TIGHT END TRIO
Tight end Darren Waller has been a revelation this season for Oakland with 44 catches for 485 yards through six games. But the Raiders have also gotten big contributions from the other two tight ends. Foster Moreau has 12 catches for 121 yards and TDs in two of the past three games, while Derek Carrier has added seven catches for 77 yards. All three are also capable blockers, adding versatility to the offense.
“That’s the one position, I’ve said several times, that I believe that’s the life blood of our offense,” Gruden said. “I couldn’t be happier with the tight ends.”
The Texans have also gotten important contributions from their tight ends this season. Darren Fells is tied for first on the team with three touchdown receptions and he and fellow tight end Jordan Akins have combined for 399 yards receiving.