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Christian Watson's breakout performance could change Titans' game plan against Packers

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GREEN BAY – In the eyes of the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers didn’t offer much of a passing threat and they showed it both with the way they played defense in a 31-28 overtime loss and the words they chose after the game. 

Playing with eight-men in the box 60% of the time, they essentially told the Packers that if they were going to beat them, they were going to have to do it throwing the ball. And when it came to the Packers receivers, they felt a single safety back to help their cornerbacks was more than enough. 

“I didn’t really think too much of any of their receivers, honestly,” Dallas cornerback Trevon Diggs said. “I’ve never seen an issue with any of them.” 

No one could blame him for thinking that given the fact the group had a single 100-yard receiving game among them and none during the team’s five-game losing streak. 

“I think it was good that he felt that way,” receiver Sammy Watkins said after the game. “Everybody has been down on us. The world’s been talking about the receiving room hasn’t got this, hasn’t got that. Then, on the biggest stage, we showed why (the Packers) went and got me and why they went and got Christian (Watson) with the consistent guys they’ve got out there. 

“So, it just feels great to quiet the noise.” 

The primary silencer was Watson, the rookie for whom general manager Brian Gutekunst traded two second-round draft picks so he could select him at No. 34. 

His four catches for 107 yards and three touchdowns against the Cowboys put him in elite company. Only Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce has more receiving touchdowns in a game this year (four) and only Philadelphia’s A.J. Brown and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs have three. 

Watson became the first rookie receiver to score three touchdowns against the Cowboys since Randy Moss in 1998. 

What the Packers don’t know about Watson’s performance is whether it will change the opposition’s opinion of the passing game and take some pressure off the running game. The Packers broke the 200-yard rushing mark for the second time in three games and the third time overall despite all the attention the Cowboys paid to stopping them from running the ball. 

Next up is the Tennessee Titans, who have the No. 1 run defense in the NFL, in part, because they like to stack the line of scrimmage with one of their 210-pound safeties, all-pro Kevin Byard and veteran Amari Hooker, who is expected to return from a shoulder injury this week. 

Beating the Cowboys for touchdowns of 58 and 39 yards and just missing on a 42-yarder should give the Titans something to think about with Watson, who up until Sunday had 10 receptions, a long of 25 yards. Opponents have scorched the Titans for 272.6 passing yards per game (31st in the NFL) and 16 passing touchdowns (27th). 

But how convinced they are that he, Watkins, Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, if he’s activated off injured reserve, can collectively beat them is a major question mark. After seeing a steady diet of eight-man boxes against Dallas, Watson’s emergence would be the primary reason anyone would shift its approach. 

“We've had that a few times this year, where it's pretty much a single-high (safety) game where you're going to have an extra hat in the box,” offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich said. “A lot of teams do that, just they're daring you to throw the ball. That's basically what they're doing. 

“I think defenses, especially if we keep stringing this together, will have to respect his speed and his downfield threat.” 

The Cowboys didn’t know a lot about Watson because of his injury-marred start to his rookie season, but they soon found out that his 4.36-second timing in the 40-yard dash is no joke. The Titans have film of him running either past a cornerback deep or across the field past a corner and safety for touchdowns. 

They may decide they can get after quarterback Aaron Rodgers with their fierce pass rush, which ranks 13th in the NFL in sacks per pass play, or intimidate the 6-5, 208-pound Watson with their physical brand of football. The Cowboys didn’t do a good job of getting up in Watson’s face and the Titans may just show him he’s going to have to fight to get open against them. 

“I think the one thing that you definitely saw, you could feel his speed out there,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “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. I think that we talked about it every week, you want to score points, get explosive plays, and he provided a huge spark for us.” 

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Those who have been around Watson in practice can attest to his speed being difficult to gauge until you see it with the ball in the air. It wasn’t just the deep ball down the right sideline that ranked highly in the team’s estimation, it was him running across the field, particularly on the 7-yard touchdown pass he caught, that blew them away. 

“He ran right past the cornerback and the safety on that play,” Watkins said. “That was impressive. I think the world saw that he's flying, just like the other guys who they call fast. Every week we need that. We've got that deep threat. He's a deep threat on this team. 

“So, that's going to open a lot of guys up and I hope they keep looking down at him, not worry about him and he just continues to have the success he did.” 

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