Analysis Notebook: DPOY Special
The regular season is in the books for 2013 and rather than look back at any one moment from the final games of the season I want to focus instead on an award that has become a very interesting battle: Defensive Player of the Year.
It’s one thing to get muddied when it comes to MVP. The ‘value’ element to that award instantly creates a whole minefield of mess because it’s an inherently intangible thing to try and quantify. What is value and how do you quantify it? We all know that the most important position in the game is quarterback, so the award has really just become which one had the best season. This year that’s Peyton Manning by a landslide, so while we pay lip service to guys like Jamaal Charles we all know Manning will win and it wouldn’t be a shock if the vote was unanimous.
Defensive Player of the Year on the other hand should be far more simple to analyze. It’s pure performance. Who had the best season in 2013? That’s pretty simple, right? The only thing we have to worry about there is trying to cross compare positions which, while difficult is something we’ve all been doing since the game began so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. I’ve seen people argue that players shouldn’t be in the running because their team only won a couple of games. That my friends is idiocy. Lawrence Taylor won the award on a 4-win Giants team, Cortez Kennedy won it on a 2-win Seattle side, Jason Taylor’s Dolphins won just 6 games the season he won and Reggie White once won it when his Eagles side had a losing record and the 23rd ranked defense – in a league with just 28 teams.
It is an individual award, so a team’s inability to play ball around a guy shouldn’t prevent him from being acknowledged as the league’s best defender. In my eyes this season the award is very much a two horse race, but one of those horses doesn’t even seem to be on most people’s shortlist. J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn are head and shoulders above any other candidate, but we’ll take a run through them in the order I think they should appear on people’s lists anyway, so you might need to scroll a little bit to find the part on your favorite.
It made sense last season. Watt finished the year a hair shy of the all-time sack record, he batted down like a million passes, and he was making plays for everybody to see each and every week – plays that stuck out on the stat sheet. It helped that the Texans were winning games and he was the figurehead for that dominance. He ended the year breaking the PFF grading system becoming the first player to top 100 grading points in a season. This year the gaudy stats aren’t there, but would it surprise you to know that in PFF’s grading, a play by play measure of his performance, he actually topped his 2012 numbers?
Take a look:
This is how Watt stacks up over the past two seasons against the top five 3-4 DEs from the 2013 season. Campbell, Williams, Jordan and Richardson all had extremely strong years – Richardson’s good enough to likely hand him Defensive Rookie of the Year – but none is even playing the same game as Watt in either season. Last year was incredible, but his 2013 performance tops it by a clear ten grading points, the only thing that changed is a few statistics didn’t fall his way and the Texans stopped winning games.
Sometimes when a guy plays on the line what he does won’t show up on the stat sheet at all. Doug Flutie said recently that running the ball is a waste of time, because ‘you need seven good blocks to run the football’. In a funny way the reverse can be true as well. One guy can’t mount a successful defense. No matter how dominant that player is, offenses can find a way to avoid him, even if they can’t neutralize him. Watt found that at times this season. In week 6 the Rams held Watt to his first game not graded in the green in the past two regular seasons, but when I looked at how they did it in that week’s Analysis Notebook I found they didn’t do anything special, just used a bit of common sense. When Watt was lined up on one side they ran to the other, when he was left 1 on 1 they made sure the ball was coming out quickly.
Plenty of Houston defenders owe a lot of their defensive stops to Watt torpedoing the play in the backfield but not recording the stop himself. He has been a one-man wrecking ball all throughout the season but all too often it’s made little impact on the overall outcome. That is not a failing of his.
What is perhaps most amazing about him is that he is a perfectly balanced player. He is no better rushing the passer than he is defending the run, because he uses the same skills and techniques to play both. Simply put he’s just too quick for most blockers to deal with, and any that are quick enough to handle him aren’t strong enough to contain him. If he plays inside he uses his swim move to just toss interior linemen aside and penetrate immediately. The Texans have used him more this season outside as a 4-3 DE where he has been equally as effective. He’s still plenty quick enough to play on the edge, but he also brings a power that offensive tackles just aren’t used to dealing with.
Against the Titans we can see a great example of one such play. Watt lined up at defensive end in a four-man line as a traditional edge rusher. He hasn’t squeezed his alignment to play closer to his comfort zone, he is aligned exactly as if he was Michael Strahan, and from the resulting play nobody would know he wasn’t.
Initially he threatened the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, but then quickly switched his position so that he was initiating contact right into the tackle’s chest. From this point the tackle is in trouble, already rocked on his heels and expecting a bull rush to drive him back into the quarterback, but Watt adjusted to where Ryan Fitzpatrick was in the pocket, tossed his man to the side and leapt inside to take him to the ground just after the pass was gone. This won’t show up on a box score as a sack, but Watt had his arms outstretched closing to deck the quarterback just 1.7 seconds into this play. That combination of speed and power just doesn’t exist for most people. When tackles see a big body outside they’re expecting to have to deal with power, but not the speed that comes along with Watt. Whether it was inside or outside he did this all season long, posting a massive 84 total sacks, hits and hurries, second in the league behind Robert Quinn’s 91.
Speaking of getting to the quarterback with speed, that is Quinn’s game in a nutshell. He turns the corner faster than any player in football, and has the kind of speed that Dwight Freeney had in his prime, perhaps even more. Quinn’s season has been built largely on absolutely destroying the bad offensive tackles he has faced, but even when he has gone up against good ones, he has still generated more pressure than those players give up on average when they don’t face him. It’s not fair to say that he disappeared against quality blockers, but it is worth pointing out that his stats and grades have been built on the games against poor ones. That being said his grade this season is 280% that of the next best 4-3 defensive end. That gap between him and the rest of the field is even further (by a hair) than Watt’s gap over the rest of the 3-4 defensive ends.
Take this play against the Seahawks as a perfect example of Quinn’s abilities. He gets a sack against Russell Okung, who is an elite pass protector at his best but in this game is dealing with an injury which kept him from being 100%. The point though isn’t to illustrate Quinn’s opposition but rather the speed at which he works. Both him and Chris Long from the other side of the line get pressure on the play – quick pressure – but the difference is in Quinn’s initial burst off the line.
At the time of this picture he is a full yard further upfield than Long, himself a quick pass-rusher, and this allows him to dictate the contact from the tackle, not have to react because he is in position. On the far side Long has to hesitate and pull a move on his man, allowing the tackle to get enough on him to guide him deeper in the pocket. Had there been nothing but Long’s pressure it’s likely Russell Wilson could have simply stepped up into a clean pocket and allowed the tackle to run Long past him, but Quinn prevents that. His speed off the line put Okung on the back foot and enabled him to turn the corner much closer to the line of scrimmage, getting all the way around Okung by the time Wilson felt the heat and took off. Quinn had nothing stopping him giving chase and took the quarterback down from behind as Long was guided past the play.
Quinn’s speed led to a league-leading 91 total pressures this season and a pass-rushing grade more than double that of the next best player at his position, Miami’s Cameron Wake.
In any other year Robert Quinn wins Defensive Player of the Year in a landslide, and his candidacy is truly deserving, but I think he is edged out by the consistent dominance of Watt.
Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David
The first candidates to appear on the same team, both Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David have had fantastic seasons, and interestingly though they are both on the same team, neither has had much help around them. McCoy has been a shining light on a defensive line that has been unable to provide any kind of backup. While his season grade is a massive +56.3 the rest of the Tampa Bay defensive linemen have combined for a -84.4 grade with every single member grading negatively. Similarly though David has posted a huge grade the other starter Mason Foster has been poor (Tampa Bay roll with sub packages for the majority of the time and no other linebacker has more than 263 snaps).
Both players are clearly Pro-Bowlers (despite David’s laughable omission) and All-Pro deserving after the season they have had but they are the first of the players whose seasons I don’t think are really DPOY worthy, such is the competition they are going up against. Gerald McCoy was in the shadow of Ndamukong Suh at draft time and for the beginnings of their respective careers. A few injuries held him back and it wasn’t really until this season that we saw what he was capable of. While Suh had his best season to date he was surrounded by capable help in Detroit. McCoy did it all on his own in Tampa Bay. Take this play against the Saints last week.
This is a sack from McCoy that in reality he has no business getting. The first unusual thing is that he’s starting from a 0-technique, a true nose tackle position head up over the center. Players with this kind of alignment don’t typically generate much pressure. This is originally how defenders lined up, before somebody figured out they were much more likely to get penetration if they lined up in gaps or shaded towards them. McCoy is there in this instance because they are running a stunt designed to spring Lavonte David free up the middle. McCoy and Adrian Claiborne (#94) crash hard to the gaps to their right, hopefully drawing three blockers as David then loops in behind them into the open A-gap. McCoy’s role on the play is essentially just to disrupt things but he is so quick and powerful off the line that he beats the center into the gap, powers through and gets a sack before the stunt can develop behind him. There are very few players in the NFL capable of doing this and he was doing it on a regular basis all season long.
There is a lot of hype surrounding Kuechly for DPOY but much of it is misguided. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching him, but he isn’t the player some think he is. He is an absolute tackling machine who flows to the football better than any linebacker I can remember. He gets in on a lot of tackles. Not as many as the NFL’s unofficial scorers seem to think, but a lot nonetheless. When he was credited with a massive 24 tackles against the Saints I figured the over/under for the actual number of tackles he made would be somewhere in the mid-teens. Often team scorers like to throw assists at linebackers that were just vaguely near the pile at the time, and this smacked of that. When we did our own PFF tally though with a much more detailed retrospective look at each play we credited him with 22, 17 solo and 5 assists. That was a monster game, there is no doubt about it. Had he played like that all season long he might deserve to top the players above him for the award, but he didn’t. That was a high watermark of a season that was pretty inconsistent, especially in coverage.
For as much as he flows to the football and makes plays against the run, Kuechly is too often lost when he has to backpedal and the play goes over his head. Far from being DPOY I think there’s a pretty good argument to make that over a full 16-game schedule Kuechly isn’t even a Pro-Bowler.
Another player that falls under the category of great season, not great enough. Mathis’ candidacy is based on stats. He is the NFL’s sack leader and has an unquestioned knack for the strip-sack, with eight forced fumbles this year. There is no doubt he’s had a great year, but not as great as those numbers suggest. Looking at just sack numbers will always be a tiny percentage of a player’s rushing snaps and overall pressure. Mathis transformed a high percentage of his pressure into big plays, but the overall level of pressure he generated wasn’t amazing. He tallied 61 total sacks, hits and hurries, a full 30 fewer than Quinn’s league-leading mark and a figure matched or bettered by twenty-five players, many of whom are interior defensive linemen. His Pass Rushing Productivity score (a metric essentially measuring efficiency of pressure generated per rush) was just 11.0 on the season, only good for 7th amongst 3-4 OLBs.
Stats can’t prove everything, and that holds both for the argument I’m making as well as the one I’m rebuking. You need to take into account the bigger nature of the plays Mathis made as opposed to just any other run of the mill pressure, and we have done that in the PFF grading. Mathis graded well, but was still edged for the top spot in the 3-4 OLB rankings by KC’s Justin Houston who missed a full month of the season. His pass-rush grade was beaten by Elvis Dumervil, who had fewer sacks and big plays, but matched the 61 total pressures from significantly fewer snaps rushing the passer.
Robert Mathis had a great year, especially stepping out from the shadow of Dwight Freeney, and it’s a season to write about, but Mathis is not the DPOY.
This is a pick that’s gaining momentum in certain quarters. Thomas has had a lot of hype surrounding him for a while now, and this is the first season that he’s really lived up to it. Thomas is most definitely a fine free safety, with perhaps better range and closing speed than anybody since Ed Reed in his prime (though Jairus Byrd certainly has something to say about that first part), but he isn’t the flawless player many make him out to be and his negatives do tend to get brushed under the carpet. He certainly flies to the football but often too recklessly and it causes him to miss tackles he should be making. He missed 14 tackles this year, which isn’t the most in the league, but significantly more than the 5 missed by Devin McCourty, our top graded safety.
He’s also not flawelss in coverage and tends to gamble a little too much especially when he is asked to cover closer to the line of scrimmage. All too often passes are completed on post-routes where Thomas is seemingly nothing to do with the play…because he gambled or misread the quarterback and took off out of his zone underneath that throw. Those don’t get noticed by many people, and it’s certainly fair to say that he makes up for the poor plays with good, but those negatives are there, and they’re enough to keep him out of the DPOY discussion in my eyes.
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