Analysis Notebook: Week 13
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 the 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