Analysis Notebook: Week 13

How good is J.J. Watt? Better than you think he is. Even if you think he's fantastic. Sam Monson breaks down this transcendent talent.

| 3 years ago

Analysis Notebook: Week 13

analysis notebook copyAt the risk of breaking some pretty heavy news here: J.J. Watt is pretty good.

I know this isn’t a shock by now and people are seriously talking about him in MVP terms finally. However good you think J.J. Watt is, I’m here to tell you he’s even better. When you start to look at just how much better Watt is than everybody around him it’s like watching NFL prospects in high school. He’s just made of different things compared to other human beings.

He trains in the same gym as UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis for strength and conditioning, and Pettis recently remarked to TMZ that despite Watt having no MMA training whatsoever he couldn’t take him down, he’s just too big and strong.

There are plenty of great players in the NFL today, but Watt transcends that. He isn’t just a great player, but he is generationally great, and possibly more than that. Reggie White is seen by most people as the single shining example of the best defensive lineman of all time. It’s time to start looking at Watt in that light. He hasn’t done it for as long as White did, but we have now seen three solid seasons of Watt dominating at a level we hadn’t seen at PFF before he arrived. Those three seasons are his second, third and fourth in the league, and his rookie year wasn’t exactly a letdown either.

Before Watt arrived PFF had former Bengal and current 49er Justin Smith benchmarked as being about as good as it gets as a 3-4 defensive end. He topped the position’s rankings in grade over a three-year span from 2009-11 and looked head and shoulders above the competition. His average grade over that time was +36.4. Watt’s three-year average for 2012-14 (projecting his grade this season through 16 games) is +98.1.

The average of the best ten single-season grades we have given during the PFF era for 3-4 defensive ends if you take Watt’s name out of the equation is +29.8, and they are all in a pretty consistent range. Watt is just on another plane entirely.

The same story is repeated, though not quite as dramatically, if you look at the total number of pressures he has recorded. His three-year average is 89 combined sacks, hits or hurries. The average of the top ten guys outside of him? Fifty-five.

That of course only takes into account his pass rushing. This is a pass-first league now (more BREAKING!), so that’s obviously important, but Watt’s dominance extends way beyond that. Take this two-point conversion attempt by Tennessee during their first meeting this season.


The Titans are taking the relatively unusual approach of trying to pick up a two-point conversion with a running play, but unfortunately they’re running right into the teeth of Watt. Sadly, right guard Chance Warmack is left grasping at air as he face plants following the little jab step inside that Watt sells him with on the play. That meant that by the time the running back takes the hand-off, the play is already dead. Take a look:



Watt’s quickness and strength is equally applicable in the run game as it is rushing the passer. Any attempt to quantify his dominance by looking only at his pass rush abilities does him a disservice and ignores a huge portion of his impact. He attacks the line of scrimmage whether it is a run or a pass and is capable of blowing up both by winning at the line of scrimmage. His pass rushing numbers are ridiculous enough on their own, but when you factor in his impact in the run game, he ascends to a completely new level.

The other development in Watt’s game since his earliest games in the NFL is how many different positions he is used and how many techniques along the defensive line the Texans deploy him in. In truth labelling him a ‘3-4 defensive end’ doesn’t come close to explaining where Watt lines up game to game. He has taken snaps at nine different basic positions this season including all four positions in a 4-man line, both end spots in a 3-man line as well as stand-up linebacker both inside and outside. That’s before you delve into the more detailed world of defensive technique alignment which only increases the spectrum.

He is dominant whether he is inside or outside. We have already seen him destroy a guard from lining up almost directly over him, but he does exactly the same thing lined up as a traditional edge rusher, where players are usually 30 lbs lighter than he is.

Take this play against Cleveland. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are both aligned as true edge rushers. They are going to end up one-on-one against the offensive tackles, Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz, and each have their chance to influence the play. If we freeze it here we can see the difference in progress each guy has made at the point the tackles are really trying to engage to slow the rush.


Just before we skip over it, the other guy is Jadeveon Clowney, one of the best defensive prospects in years, one of the biggest athletic freaks in 2014-12-03_11-50-53the league, a guy who runs a 4.5 forty at around 265lbs. Watt is beating him up the field. Yes, Clowney has been injured this season, and the eventual progress he makes on the play is going to be affected by the fact that Joe Thomas is arguably the best pass protector in football. I have frozen the play here specifically because it is about as far as each player gets before the tackles really engage and try to halt their progress. Watt has a better get-off on this play than a guy 30 lbs lighter than he is who is one of the most athletically frightening human beings in the league.

How did the play end? Well it ended with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz doing a pretty good job blocking Watt, but the defender made the play anyway. With Schwartz guiding Watt just past the quarterback he is able to stick out a long arm and force the ball out, creating a fumble where most players might not have even registered pressure.

Again, if you look at the level of the two tackles – they’re in about the same place at the same depth, the only difference is Watt has forced his way around his man while Clowney is still stuck on the block from Thomas. Watt does this to people. Even when they play it pretty well, he is just better than they are.

He’s racking up some ridiculous statistics this season. When you are as dominant as he is sometimes the stats come and sometimes they don’t. In all honesty he has been at the same consistently high level for three seasons now. One season he chased the sack record and had a lot of hype, the next his statistics were relatively modest and the Texans won just two games so the hype disappeared. This year the stats are back, so the hype-train is running away down the tracks again, but this guy has been doing this for three seasons straight.

Oh, and what’s even better about it this year? He’s now catching touchdowns:



Watt the tight end now has three touchdown receptions. That’s more than Vernon Davis, Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne or Vincent Jackson. Heck, it’s more than Andre Johnson, the stud wide out on his own team.

As we can see from that GIF, his ball skills are pretty damn impressive to go along with the transcendent athleticism that we just take for a given at this point. It’s scary to think of what Watt could achieve if he was playing tight end as a true Ironman two-way player. I think he would be well capable of it.

My favorite part of this play though? He starts in the backfield, before motioning out to the slot, meaning we can’t be too far away from the J.J. Watt rushing touchdown.


Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam



| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Cory Marquis

    You guys should release an extract of Watt’s play by play grades. Obviously Watt’s play speaks for itself, but 3x the historical top 10 average seems like a pretty colossal outlier. I’ve seen some Watt games where he’s been strong, but not exactly what Id consider a +10 strong despite what I see on PFF the next day. I’d love to do my own analysis and compare.

    • Chris

      I wish on the premium stats page they’d include the number of positively graded plays, neutral plays, and negatively graded plays next to their snap counts and overall grades. That’s the only real stat that matters – all the other ‘usual stats’ just confuse the issue because the whole point of this site is to go beyond those restrictive stats and show what’s really happening. But all they show is the final number and not how they got there, and then muddy the waters with other stats.

      But anyway, the usual argument for Watt (or anyone else who’s grade exceeds how someone thought they played) is simple – the eyeball test is very subjective and tends to only focus on the highlights, whether good or bad, and forget the rest.

      For a DL of any kind, the eyeball remembers blowing up run plays in the backfield, sacks on the QB, and forcing fumbles etc. If a DE doesn’t do any of these in a game your eyeball test would tell you he had a “bad game.” It forgets all the other plays where he ‘wasn’t involved’.

      But, what if the other team only ran the ball 11 times and spent most of those running to the opposite side of the formation away from Watt. Is it his fault he beat his man into the backfield but the run went the other way? Or they tailor the gameplan to feature a ton of quick passes. So even if Watt beats his man into the backfield almost every snap, but the ball is already gone on a short slant, is that Watt’s fault?

      We tend to watch the ball when we watch the game – the QB when he drops back to throw and the RB after the handoff – so we don’t see Watt winning his matchup on almost every single play when the plays are designed to minimize his impact.

      But again, that isn’t Watt’s fault. If you sit down and watch one of his games and give him a +1 for “winning his matchup” on a given snap and a -1 for “losing it” (not their actual grading method just a hypothetical way of doing it yourself), I bet more often than not you’ll come out with something over +50.

      A similar example to this would be watching Sherman or Revis play. Corners only usually get noticed when they’re thrown at, so if we don’t see them do anything except give up a few catches we don’t think they had a good game. But QBs [usually] don’t throw the ball into good coverage, which is why these guys are targeted at such a low ratio. If you watch them play and do the same +1/-1 for good or bad coverage, you’ll see the impact they have on the game that you didn’t notice watching the ball before.

      • Cory Marquis

        I certainly agree that there is inherent bias in the eyeball test, however, I’ve noticed over time that PFF tends to grade more positively with types of players as much as actual plus plays.

        For example, on the Patriots Jaime Collins and Dont’a Hightower are the main linebackers in the nickel package. They have a .6 and a 6.6 grade respectively. One would think Hightower’s 6.6 grade means he’s the better player in coverage. What it doesn’t take into account is that Hightower never takes deep drops or gets flexed out wide. His primary responsibility is spying and covering backs that leak out into the flat. It has led him to get some nice quick tackles, and a low yards per cover snap. So while the Pats actively scheme around his lack of fluidity and weak coverage skills, his coverage grade seems inflated because he gets all of the easy assignments.

        I’m not saying that Watt’s grade is anything of the sort because Watt is a true every down every situation player, but I am curious as to the type of plays that must be happening with Watt at a volume that we don’t see with other players, and how relevant they actually are.

        His grades just seem unnaturally high.

        • Chris

          I can agree with everything you said. I’d be willing to bet PFF tracks how each player performs given their assignment, so if they wanted to they could compare how Collins and Hightower perform when they both drop back or play the flat.

          As far as Watt, his grade is unnaturally high. I think he deserves it, but I’m with you I’d like to see some sort of addition to the site that shows positive/negative plays and what types of assignments they perform best in.

          • bobo

            I hope someone at PFF is reading your posts

          • LightsOut85

            Your guess is as good as mine, but I had always assumed it was a “grade is based on ‘whatever they were asked to do’ ” method – that is, while things like time are taken into account (in pass-pro, rushing the passer, etc), things that are specific to the degree of, say, which WR was being covered while in man coverage (Calvin Johnson vs no-name 3rd-stringer) – are not. If the route/throw “difficulty” are equal, & the CB is beaten in both cases, I thought they were marked relatively equally (even if the difficulty of who they are covering was vastly different).

            One of the many mysteries of PFF, lol.

          • Chris

            I was meaning like the following (hypothetical numbers):

            Hightower: +6.6 total coverage in 300 snaps, +8.6 in 250 snaps covering the flat, -2 in 50 snaps dropping deep

            Collins: +0.9 total coverage in 300 snaps, +1.2 in 50 snaps covering the flat, -0.3 in 250 snaps dropping deep

            I would be willing to bet they could sort out grades for players based on assignment during the play, which would be very helpful with comparisons. `

          • LightsOut85

            Ah, I got ya now. I’d definitely have to agree then, that they HAVE to have those marked down (they do it with routes-run, after all).

            I’d have to imagine the situation is close to your example. Every season there seems to be an “un-athletic”, 2-down LB who grades out very well in coverage.

          • Dildo Baggins

            Deangelo Hall always had TERRIBLE coverage numbers, but his grade wasnt nearly as bad as the numbers suggested. I remember Pete tweeting me back, saying that was because he followed receivers around the field, so they took the difficulty of his task into the grading.

        • Santa Claus

          I think something you have to keep in mind as well, is they don’t get the play sheet from week-to-week. So the only thing they are grading on is result of play not necessarily assignment . For example: if Watt was to be playing contain and rushes up field and gets a sack, he’ll get credited as a positive play, when he would get a negative on assignment from the team. So yeah there’s that to take into account.

      • PetEng

        I don’t need to lose any more time on this site so I hope they don’t start releasing more starts.

      • LightsOut85

        I would LOVE that +/0/- idea. They wouldn’t have to give any REAL look into their “private method”, but it’d give us a much better idea of how a guy plays. Whether they end up with a good grade because their highs exceeded their lows that much, or whether they were just a bit above average *every single play* (etc).

        Hell, I would appreciate listing of number of green/white/red games. That’d be useful to weed out guys who have one excellent (or poor) game that weights their year-grade even after 16 games (Say, if he got a 7.0 pass-rush one game but no other above 0.9 (but not *bad*), you could see “oh, only 1 green game in 16, so he wasn’t as consistent as this guy who just never had above 2.0 but went above 1.0 a lot — Yea, you could do that by hand, but if you really want to analyze someone you have to do it in the context of all their peers & it would take an unreasonable amount of time to do that).

  • Chris

    IMO he deserves the MVP. He is playing at an astonishing level for his position. If his sack numbers are projected through the end of this season he’ll have 52 total through his first 4 seasons. For comparison Reggie The Legend had 70 and Bruce The All Time Leader had 44.5. That’s some damn good company to be in, and if he can continue to play like he is for another 10 seasons he may end up as the best pass rusher of all time…and he’s a 3-4 end. Incredible.

  • Dildo Baggins

    And to think this guy was a walk-on at Wisconsin…

    • Chris

      And to think, the Jags passed on him to draft Blaine Gabbert….

      • Dildo Baggins

        The Texans fans hated the pick at the time though. That changed quickly…

        • LightsOut85

          Really? I’m surprised since, while no one probably expected NEAR this level of dominance, he tested very well at the combine (which I hated, because prior to that many people thought he’d be available when my Chargers picked :D).

    • Spurz

      Wes Welker had to walk-on too at a much smaller school. The unfortunate side affect of being white and a supreme athlete is that you get no credit for it whatsoever, meanwhile guys he run a slower timed 40 and a much slower game speed, but are black, will be recruited and drafted much higher due to inherent NFL racism.

  • DRH

    He is beyond great on Defense.

    But we need to pump the brakes when talking about him on offense.
    That is a clear pick play. Just watch 84’s route and how he breaks his route into 59’s path to the throw to Watt.

    Pick plays are so easy, even Defenders can catch touchdowns.

    • Dildo Baggins

      Avery Williamson barely gets touched by Ryan Grifin. If this is a pick play, its the worst pick i have ever seen. Still doesnt change the fact that Watt made a great catch. Many TEs in the NFL would have dropped that pass. As a Lions fan, i can tell you that Brandon Pettigrew would drop that.

  • Jason

    He is a monster, but I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to see more of the Thomas-Watt matchup, as the Texans schemed away from him.

  • Chad Lundberg

    As incredible as he is playing, nobody in their right mind would take him over Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is MVP, no question.

    • Jordan

      Says the Green Bay Packers fan…

      • Chad Lundberg

        So I’m a Packers fan, your point being what exactly? Are you NOT a Texans fan?

  • Mike

    I think Rodgers is MVP this year over Watt, but Watt is still beyond incredible. Unfortunately 3-4 ends are not glamerous and they dont have as much of an impact as a QB does. If you put Rodgers on Houston, theyre an instant playoff team. Theyre not a playoff team with or without Watt. Watt himself is only one player, and doesnt directly impact those around him as a QB does. That how it works unfortunately. Still quite possibly the best player in the NFL though.

  • Mike Rushing

    Not shooting the dude down at all, how could you, but he did play TE in high school.

  • Andre Yoder

    Joe Thomas made Watt look foolish when he lined up on his side.