It’s easy to picture the scene in the offensive meeting room on a Monday morning when the Houston Texans’ upcoming opponents first plan how to counter the threat of JJ Watt this season. On a defense that is strong and deep, Watt is the one player that you mustn’t allow to beat you on his own, an ability he has shown week in and week out this season. In a Marquee Matchup of one loss teams this was the Houston Texans’ singular Marquee Matchup.
This week the task fell to the Chicago Bears to silence the runaway candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, with a much maligned offensive line that in a one-on-one situation simply could not hope to match-up with the phenomenal second-year talent from the University of Wisconsin. The man who would be charged with matching-up to him primarily would be a former college teammate of Watt’s, Gabe Carimi, who has struggled this season as a pass protector. With Watt registering pressure for fun this season, the odds were that he would put up another exceptional display. The odds were so good that our Khaled Elsayed included this matchup in his Beatdown Watch for Week 10.
That beatdown did not happen however, not by Watt’s extremely high 2012 standards anyway. By any other standard Watt had a solid game, but Sunday night was his lowest graded game of the season (+1.9) — he failed to record a sack for only the second time this season, recorded only three pressures (almost a season low) and his two stops in run defense were a season low. None of those numbers are bad, but how did the much-maligned Chicago Bears offensive line limit the most destructive defensive player of the 2012 season in the way no other team has this season?
Play the Conditions
The first thing to consider is the state of conditions on Sunday night in Chicago. Few teams in the NFL play on natural grass surfaces anymore, and even fewer of those keep the grass cut as long as the Bears do at Soldier Field. When you add in the state of the weather in the Windy City on Sunday night — pouring rain — and you have conditions that simply aren’t amenable to playing football fast.
In theory cold, wet, windy weather is set up for defensive football and, while it is, the sort of defensive football it’s set up for is the grinding variety, rather than the explosive game that Watt has put forth this season. The conditions on Sunday were not a decisive factor, but what they did do was take an edge off what Watt could do. There were a number of times in this game that Watt and other players slipped, unsurprisingly, and fell in their pass rush. Conditions under foot like those make you play more within yourself, keeping your weight more centered and preventing you from taking quite such an aggressive lean angle on your pass rush. All of these things play into the hands of a pass protector who will have less ground to cover and won’t have to take those same risks which, in the playing conditions on Sunday night, could have led to a disastrous play for the Bears in a close game.
Start as You Mean to Go On
However, it’s important to point out that it wasn’t Mother Nature blocking Watt on Sunday night, it was a combination of eight different Chicago Bears. Every single member of the Chicago offensive line, plus Kellen Davis, Jonathan Scott and Matt Forte all laid a block on Watt at some point. The Bears made a statement block on Watt on the very first snap of the game, one that was sure to draw the attention of fans and media alike watching. A favorite phrase of hyperbole around the league is that a dominant defensive player was “doubled on every snap”. When the Bears do what they did on the first snap it helps to feed that myth. Chicago lined up with a sixth offensive lineman, Scott, aligned to Watt’s side and there was no secrecy about what was coming on Jay Cutler’s first drop-back. Immediately trying to swim into the C-gap to Carimi’s outside shoulder, Watt was sandwiched by the Bears’ two tackles and didn’t escape the block, ensuring he was a non-factor on the play.
This, however, was not what happened throughout the game. You simply can’t double one player on every single down as obviously as this, a defensive coordinator like Wade Phillips would be able to come up with a hatful of strategies to isolate Watt and that double team, while overloading the rest of the offensive line. Overall the Bears blocked, or tried to block Watt, one-on-one more often than multiple blockers were involved, and often it was Watt’s alignment that drew the double team as much as his threat.
On around one in six plays Watt was aligned in a gap, ie between linemen, and on plenty more he was shaded as much on the gap as he was any of the linemen. Irrespective of Watt’s quality, this is a tough block for the Bears’ offensive linemen to handle one-on-one, though there were some impressive reach blocks by individual linemen throughout the game. Simply by his alignment Watt was drawing contact from multiple blockers, in much the same way as nose tackles in a 4-3 tend to draw a double team simply by the way the front lines up, and it would have been utter suicide from the Bears to ask their line to handle these blocks one-on-one against a player half as good as Watt is.
So a combination of Watt’s ability, his alignments and then a lot of stunts and slants from the Texans’ defensive line drew about a predictable amount of plays where Watt was contacted by multiple blockers against an offensive line that was not looking to block man for man. For the game, I counted Watt being single teamed on 32 of the Texans’ 59 defensive snaps, with a ‘full’ double team, i.e. both blockers solely focused on blocking Watt from the outset, coming on only seven snaps. More often than this, particularly on passing plays, were ‘help blocks’ where one lineman blocked him initially and then another lineman was free and with nothing better to do than seal the block on Watt. On the majority of these plays the primary offensive lineman had the block controlled initially but the help still came, which would have been a point of emphasis for the coaching staff throughout the week in all likelihood — if you can get two bodies on Watt, do it.
The Texans also helped the Bears to an extent by only rushing more than five players on seven occasions, and used their base of four pass rushers on just more than half of their pass defense downs. While it was by no means an unsophisticated pass rush — they weren’t just rushing straight ahead with four players, they were running stunts, twists and slants — when you present an offensive line with a numbers advantage in their favor there is always going to be a free blocker to the interior who will either locate a block in trouble, pick up a player aligned in a gap or occasionally pick up a particular player by design. Watt falls into all of the above categories and he took more than half of his ‘doubles’ from the Bears’ offensive line when they had a numerical advantage and logically one Bears offensive lineman was going to be picking up a double team rather than stand around twiddling his thumbs or critiquing the blocking of a team-mate.
A Strategy Worth Repeating?
In spite of all of this attention from the Bears’ offensive line, and the ample opportunities for the rest of the Texans’ pass rush to get after both Jay Cutler and Jason Campbell, they were not able to get any real heat into their pass rush. The conditions played a part in the limiting of the entire pass rush, but the reason the Bears’ offensive linemen were so frequently able to peel back to help on blocks of Watt was simply because the rest of the Houston pass rush wasn’t getting home and troubling one of the weakest pass protecting units in the entire league. In spite of a near season-low of three pressures, Watt still accounted for 30% of the Texans’ pass rushing output in this game. The likes of Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin simply couldn’t win matchups in favorable situations against linemen who have proven themselves to be consistently sub-standard pass protectors this season.
This tactic did not yield points, and shutting down J.J. Watt can never be your sole focus against the Houston defense — the Packers proved earlier this season that you can still allow Watt a presence while making plays on the rest of the defense. However, what the Bears’ tactic of leaving a guy free to peel onto Watt highlighted is the weakness of the rest of the Houston pass rush. Last season, the Texans’ highest graded pass rushers were their interior defensive linemen and it is a rare defense where the interior pass rushers set up the outside rushers, not vice versa. Unless Reed and Barwin start showing a greater ability to win one-on-one battles outside it would be no surprise at all to see teams start to zero in on Watt with similar tactics to the Bears. Chicago proved that you don’t need to devote double teams to Watt to keep him quiet, he is simply the player that help logically gravitates toward when you hand the rest of the Texans’ pass rush one-on-one.
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