On the first offensive play of the Green Bay Packers season, rookie receiver Christian Watson ran by Minnesota Vikings veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson on a go route. Despite being wide open, Watson dropped a would-be 75-yard touchdown and quarterback Aaron Rodgers looked to the Packers’ sideline in frustration.
Frustrated is exactly how Watson, fans and everyone in the Packers organization have felt about the second-round draft pick thus far.
After dropping the first pass of the season, Watson has struggled to see the field after missing extended periods of time due to injury and dropped balls.
However, after Watson’s performance in the last two games, it is evident he is more than just a field-stretching receiver that has questionable hands and injury issues. He is the key to unlocking the Packers’ offense.
In Watson’s limited snaps heading into Week 10, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur attempted to scheme Watson open on a myriad of deep shots. Unfortunately, Watson and Rodgers were never able to connect. That is until Watson’s breakout game came in Week 10 against the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field.
With just over five minutes left in the first half, the Packers lined up at their own 42-yard line in 11-personnel on a third-and-1 trailing the Cowboys 7-0. Rodgers faked the ball to running back AJ Dillon and lofted the ball to Watson as he ran the same route he dropped in Week 1. Watson made an over-the-shoulder catch at the 15-yard line and dashed into the endzone before doing a backflip to celebrate.
“That first one, I feel like, was the monkey, the 800-pound gorilla off his back, the weight of expectations and frustrations and drops and disappointment, and hopefully that’s a big jolt for him moving forward,” Rodgers said after the game. “I think that catch, probably on the atomic level, shifted a lot of different things for him, exorcising some energetic demons.”
Watson scored again on a fourth-and-7 at the start of the fourth quarter when the Packers trailed by 14. This time, Watson ran a deep over route and took the ball to the house for a 39-yard touchdown.
“It wasn’t the exact look that I would have preferred on that specific route,” Watson said after the game. “I’d like to have gotten inside of him and broke across the field. We knew that their safeties were playing low. They were playing that one-high, so obviously come out of the break and be as flat as possible. But he kind of played inside, so I took it vertical. I think I lost him a little bit and broke it flat and it was there.”
Watson’s third and final touchdown came at the end of the fourth quarter when the Packers trailed, 28-21. The Packers lined up at the Cowboys 7-yard line and Watson ran a shallow cross, flying by two defenders untouched.
“Just a play we were trying to get to all night,” Watson said. “We called that same play a few times in hopes of getting the look we wanted so we could obviously check it to that specific play. And finally, I think it was on the third time, they finally had that low safety on the back side, obviously safety to the two-man side, so just got to win with speed across the field and that’s what I did.”
Watson continued to show his ability to score in the red zone against the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night football. He hauled in four catches for 48 yards and two touchdowns, scoring on a 14-yard free-play jump ball and an eight-yard crossing route.
Entering Week 10, Watson had a measly 10 catches for 88 yards and zero receiving touchdowns. In just two games, Watson now leads all rookie receivers in touchdown catches after scoring five times on 8 catches for 155 yards.
Even if Watson is not getting thrown to, his presence alone impacts how successful the offense is.
According to Dusty Evely, through the first 10 games of the season, the Packers scored 0.66 more points per drive when Watson played on a drive relative to when he didn’t. In fact, during this time, the Packers scored 93 points (not including extra points) on the 49 drives that Watson has played versus the 63 points scored on 51 drives without Watson.
When Watson plays, teams have to account for his speed and ability to take off the top of the defense. This makes opposing teams change the way they play by playing fewer defenders in the box and utilizing more two-high safety looks.
“I think the one thing that you definitely saw, you could feel his speed out there,” coach Matt LaFleur said after the Cowboys game. “And I think anytime that you have that element, it does change how maybe you’re viewed or how teams will play you. … To get those big explosive plays was absolutely critical for us. We talk about it every week: You want to score points, get explosive plays, and he provided a huge spark for us.”
The Packers season is on life support heading into Week 12. At 4-7, the Packers essentially have to win out to make the playoffs, but if Watson can continue his recent hot streak, that might give the Packers enough firepower they need to sneak into the playoffs.