PITTSBURGH — In a four-game span from Weeks 10-13 last season, Christian Watson caught 15 passes for 313 yards and seven touchdowns.
After a rookie training camp and first half of the season tainted by injuries, the 2022 second-round pick for whom the Packers traded up had announced himself to both Green Bay and the NFL as the Packers’ No. 1 wide receiver and a legitimate big-play threat.
That Watson, now halfway through his second season, has vanished.
In six games played this season after missing the first three with a hamstring injury, Watson has 14 catches for 236 yards and one touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Info, half of quarterback Jordan Love’s 10 interceptions through nine games have come targeting Watson, including two in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 23-19 loss to the Steelers.
Watson is not entirely to blame, but the Love-Watson connection that’s supposed to power Green Bay’s passing game is virtually nonexistent. That’s part of the reason why the Packers have failed to score more than 20 points in seven consecutive games, the primary reason they’ve slumped to 3-6 just past the midway point of this season.
“There’s people on the other side of the field getting paid a lot of money to do what they do, too,” Watson said when asked why he and Love haven’t consistently connected on big plays. “I just think in certain situations, the defense has a good call or just makes a good play. That’s it at the end of the day.”
Watson’s Sunday in Pittsburgh got off to a promising start, though, first with a diving catch on a dig route for a nine-yard gain on first-and-10 on Green Bay’s opening drive. Two plays later, Watson hauled in a 14-yard completion over the middle on third-and-3 with rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. draped on his back. His second catch came with 8:40 remaining in the first quarter and it was his last catch of the day despite five more targets.
Christian Watson on Packers’ close losses: “Close isn’t close enough. It’s definitely tough, but there’s nothing we can do about it after it’s already happened, so just gotta find a way to build and grow from it.” pic.twitter.com/htuas5WlDH
— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) November 12, 2023
Has Watson always tracked the deep ball well enough? No. One of Love’s bombs to him in Las Vegas comes to mind, when coach Matt LaFleur implied Watson slowed down because he didn’t accentuate his arm movement while looking up for the ball and it fell in front of him out of arm’s reach. There has been an inability to make contested catches, too, like on another deep ball down the middle against the Raiders that went through Watson’s hands and a ball in the end zone against the Vikings two weeks ago that hit Watson in the hands despite tight coverage. Love has also underthrown Watson on multiple occasions as he did on the clincher against the Raiders in the end zone (Watson didn’t exactly fight to break the ball up on third down) and on a deep ball down the left sideline against the Rams last Sunday that should’ve been a touchdown.
On Sunday against the Steelers, Watson had another drop, this one on third-and-8 early in the second quarter with the Packers trailing, 14-7. Watson ran a simple stop route three yards short of the sticks and, despite the closest defenders being four yards behind him at the time the ball hit his hands, he bobbled the ball and dropped it on what could’ve been a first down had he caught the ball and quickly turned upfield.
The bottom line is, despite an impressive 37-yard reception on a 50-50 ball late in last Sunday’s win over the Rams, Watson’s follow-up performance against the Steelers proved that catch wasn’t the spark he needed to finally break out. Instead, what followed was an underwhelming two-catch, 23-yard showing from the guy who last year looked to be Green Bay’s next true No. 1 receiver. Watson’s relative disappearance wasn’t wholly his fault on Sunday, nor has it been over the course of the season, though he’s not completely absolved of responsibility.
“It’s frustrating, for sure, just with the expectation I have for myself, the goal that I have for myself,” Watson said. “Just wanna find ways to try to make more of an impact, but at the end of the day, I’m only one out of 11 people on the field, so we just find a way to get it done as a team.”
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After Watson drew a defensive pass interference call to earn a first down midway through the second quarter, Love targeted him three more times to no avail on what would’ve been significant plays. The first came late in the third quarter on second-and-7 from Green Bay’s 49-yard line, when Love lofted a pass deep down the left sideline. The ball fell a couple of yards in front of Watson, who never had a chance while being covered by veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson. The play was so far off that it almost looked like Love and Watson weren’t on the same page.
Upon further examination, there might’ve been a reason for that, as Watson was slightly rerouted by cornerback Levi Wallace, who was coming downhill from the outside to guard running back Aaron Jones running a shallow crosser over the middle.
“We were on the same page,” Watson said. “They just had a good coverage. I had to widen a little bit more to get outside of the defender covering Jonesy on the outside … so I mean, I just had to widen it a little bit more than I would like to on that play. Normally, I would like to stay tighter then kind of try to hold that red line, but obviously, my first thought is not to run into the corner and just take myself out of the play. So I just don’t think Jordan expected it and obviously neither did I. I just had to make a decision.”
The second came with about three and a half minutes left in the game, when on second-and-9 from Pittsburgh’s 14-yard line, Love threw into tight coverage in the left side of the end zone for Watson, who ran an out-and-up double move. Peterson made a spectacular deflection covering Watson and safety Keanu Neal came down with the ball before returning it 32 yards the other way.
📲: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/T87FSnfvVk pic.twitter.com/jsAtyqMKU2
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 12, 2023
Here’s how Watson, Love and LaFleur broke down the play after the game.
“They just bracketed it,” Watson said. “I think they just played it well. There’s two of them. The safety was helping over the top. It was a cloud look. It was a little bit harder to get outside when it’s a cloud look because they have help inside. It’s just a tough look to go against on that.”
“We ran an out earlier and they jumped it a little bit, so ran the double move,” Love said. “I thought I was able to get Christian over the top and I was trying to put the ball over the top where only he can get it and the DB was able to make a good play, get a hand on it.”
“That’s not the intent of the play in that situation,” LaFleur said. “Any time you see a half-field safety, we were running a double move on both the outside and the inside that was designed for single-high defense. They played a shell. So I mean, I’ve got to go back and look at it, but just thought that the ball needed to go backside.”
In other words, that play wasn’t on Watson. Not only did Peterson make a great play, but LaFleur said Love shouldn’t have even thrown into that coverage in the first place.
On the final play of the game, the Packers had the ball at Pittsburgh’s 16-yard line with three seconds left trailing by four. The Steelers lined up with seven guys inside the 5-yard line and four on the line of scrimmage. Love targeted Watson again, but safety Damontae Kazee jumped in front to ice the game as Watson was absolutely leveled by safety Elijah Riley on the return.
There wasn’t much Watson could do on that play, either, Love’s fifth interception this season targeting Watson and yet another instance of a failed connection between the two in a pivotal late-game moment (don’t forget Love throwing behind an open Watson on second-and-20 on the final drive in their loss against the Broncos).
“It’s a play that we practice all the time as an end-of-game play,” LaFleur said. “Most good defenses, like Pittsburgh has, they’re going to defend the goal line. And you try to run a corner route to flush a defender out of there and you hit basically an in cut behind it (Watson) and they didn’t back up.”
“I’m just running a route trying to get into the end zone,” Watson said. “Obviously leave everything else to 10, try to fit it in somewhere, but at the end of the day, I mean that’s a tough position to be in. I’m sure that’s not a high-probability success rate play.”
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023
Regardless of who’s been at fault for the lack of what should be Green Bay’s featured connection, the fact of the matter is the QB-WR tandem that was supposed to help usher in a new era of Packers offense has largely disappointed. Love has certainly left plenty to be desired when targeting Watson, but the second-year receiver hasn’t held up his end of the bargain either. Circumstance and stout defensive play (the low probability of the final play on Sunday and Peterson’s deflection earlier in the quarter, for example) have played a role in limiting the tandem, too.
Whatever it takes, Love and Watson need to click. And fast. Or else the Packers’ passing game will continue lacking its most explosive element, a deficiency that has doomed them through what have been a largely miserable nine games.
(Photo: Joe Sargent / Getty Images)
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