Analysis Notebook: Week 6
Even the best players have games where they aren’t really a factor. Sometimes that’s down to an off day for the player in question, and sometimes it’s because the opposition sets out to make sure that player never influences the game from the first snap until the last. I have tremendous respect for coaches that do that, rather than sticking to what they want to usually do and just hoping they’re good enough at it that the stud on the other side doesn’t wreck things. Bill Belichick is a master at this — if you come into the game with one clear stud or trend on offense he will take that away and force you to go to Plan B. That doesn’t mean that what he does to take away Plan A won’t leave Plan B wide open and easy enough to have success with all game long, but the simple act of forcing a team to abandon what they want to do is often enough to stress them out, and more often than not reaps rewards.
In this game the Rams decided that JJ Watt would not beat them. They didn’t care if they had to change the offense and open things up for other Texans players in order to take him out of the game, but they were determined that they were going to respect where he lined up, and avoid him at all costs. You really can’t overstate how simple a concept that is, but it’s one that most offensive coordinators want no part of. If Watt lined up on one side, the chances are the Rams were running to the other side. Instead of hanging in the pocket, they were going to fire off quick passes like bubble screens all day. When they actually did need to have some time in the pocket, they double-teamed him in pass protection and risked an overload blitz getting through.
The bottom line is the Rams handed JJ Watt his first regular season negative grade in 26 straight games on Sunday. He finished with a mark of -0.8, compared with Watt’s average weekly grade over that time of a ludicrous +5.3 (including playoffs).
The most impressive thing is they did it without resorting to any complex trickery or esoteric scheming. They simply used a bit of common sense and a few simple guidelines for their offense to take Watt out of plays as much as possible. It wasn’t a universal policy, there were a few plays over the course of the game where they gave Watt a chance to influence the play, but the rate in which he did on those plays probably convinced them to stick to their game plan as much as possible. He was in on 38 snaps (not counting penalties), and on those snaps he was left one-on-one with a chance to influence the play just 11 times. On six of those 11 plays he either beat his man or directly influenced the play.
He was in on 19 passing downs, and on 13 of those he was either double-teamed in pass protection, or the ball was gone on a quick bubble screen or hot route before he had any chance to establish pressure.
The Rams essentially schemed him out of the play on 71% of the snaps he was on the field for, giving him less than a third of the opportunities he normally has to make plays and influence things.
St. Louis @ Houston | 1st Q, 7:19
The Rams double-team JJ Watt and run the ball away from him — a common theme all day long.
The two most common ways the Rams dealt with Watt was by either double-teaming him, or by simply running away from where he was aligned. On this play they combined the two, assigning RG Harvey Dahl and RT Joe Barksdale to keep him quiet on the back side of the play while they ran off left tackle to the opposite side.
It’s a simple tactic, and one that doesn’t require much different to happen on the play in order for it to be successful. TE Jared Cook fakes a route and takes OLB Brooks Reed for a ride with a release toward the sideline, and that combined with the double-team on the left side at the point of attack opens up a yawning chasm of a running lane for the lead block and running back to exploit.
Look at the sheer volume of humanity between Watt and the running back’s path simply by running the play away from him. The only thing they need to accomplish at the snap is to keep him from penetrating quickly against one blocker, and once they have achieved that with the double-team he is effectively out of the play without having sacrificed anything to achieve it. It sounds so simple as to be practically foolish to suggest, but for the best interior linemen around the league, the single most effective way to prevent them destroying your running game is simply to run away from them. Force them to make the play immediately or not at all. If you throw an initial double-team at them to stop this happening, then you’re practically home free.
St. Louis @ Houston | 3rd Q, 12:29
Left single blocked, JJ Watt knifed inside his blocker, blowing up the run play in the backfield for LB Brian Cushing to make a TFL
This was the kind of play that caused the Rams to pursue this tactic in the first place. On the few occasions Watt was left one-on-one he showed that he was perfectly capable of destroying plays all by himself. Unlike the play we saw before, this time the Rams left Watt blocked by just a single lineman, and also ran the ball right at him. They had success on a couple of occasions catching him knifing inside and then cutting back to the area he just vacated, accompanied by a pulling lineman from the other side to lead through that hole, but this time Watt just beats his man too quickly and too thoroughly for this to be anything other than a loss for the offense.
Barksdale is the player at RT tasked with blocking Watt, but he just isn’t quick enough to live with him off the snap despite being aligned heads up with no distance or shade to close. Watt simply scythes inside at the snap, beating Barksdale to the point of contact and driving through him into the backfield.
He arrives at the running back just after the handoff and while Barksdale does what he can to maintain contact and continue to ride him across the point of attack, only a nifty move from RB Zac Stacy prevents a 5-yard loss on the play. As we can see from the picture, however, it doesn’t really make much difference, because Watt has forced him to cut back into the space that Brian Cushing is now occupying, and Cushing collects himself yet another tackle for loss handed to him on a plate by Watt this season.
When you see plays like this regularly throughout Watt’s tape this season (and last season, and beyond), you can immediately understand a team’s desire to take him out of the game. All too many coaches in the NFL would prefer to simply run their own offense and lecture players earnestly all week long that they need to execute at their best to prevent a player like Watt from disrupting things. It takes genuinely smart and self-aware coaching to realize that he is just better than the guys trying to stop him, and in order to make sure he doesn’t wreak havoc all game long you have to help them out schematically. Instead of asking them to be better than they are for a week, let’s make sure to influence the plays so Watt needs to do something superhuman.
It’s not exactly glorious, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity, but simply acknowledging the facts during the week of preparation means you can come away from the game the first team to hold Watt to a negative grade for the better part of two seasons, all without anybody who aided in that process excelling themselves in the act.
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