How Texans' pass rush is driving playoff hopes
The Houston Texans’ season has gone from just another disappointment to having real playoff implications over the course of the three-game winning streak they have put together.
With the AFC South the way it is, they have gone from a 2-5 record to .500, own a share of first-place in the division, and have a very real chance of not only making the post-season, but hosting a playoff game.
Much of this is thanks to the defense, which is beginning to surround J.J. Watt with some other talented players who are finally performing; in particular, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are providing alternate sources of pressure and disruption up front. As good as Watt is, and as well as he has performed in the past, he can never get it done by himself and for the team to have success, he needed an improved supporting cast.
The performance against the Jets this week was Clowney’s highest-graded game of his career, and his best as a pass-rusher, while Mercilus this season is generating pressure at the best rate of his career.
The Texans are finally starting to have the kind of diverse pass-rushing options they dreamed of when they drafted Clowney No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft.
What is perhaps most encouraging is that there is so much more the Texans can get from this trio if they get just a little more creative. With the skill-set of Watt and Clowney in particular, the Texans have the ability to move their pieces around up front far more than they are doing at the moment, and really cause a headache for opposing protection schemes.
The Texans will change how much base, nickel and dime defense they use from week to week. Against the Jets, they were in base defense just 11 times over the course of the game (out of 68 defensive snaps). They ran with six defensive backs (dime) 36 times, and with five DBs (nickel) on 21 occasions. By contrast, against the Falcons, who run an offense with far fewer receivers and more of a traditional heavy-set offense, the Texans ran their base defense on 43-of-74 snaps.
Against the Jets, Clowney did not start, as the Texans opened up in base. It wasn’t until the sixth defensive snap of the game that they faced an obvious passing situation, and Clowney came in with the nickel personnel package.
This is how they aligned on that play, and this was their typical alignment in nickel over the course of the game:
Mercilus aligned as one edge rusher in a two-point stance on one side, Watt as the other edge rusher with his hand in the dirt on the other, and Clowney occupying the three-technique spot to one side, usually next to Mercilus inside. Clowney would play this position either with his hand in the dirt or in a two-point stance, but the alignment was this way most of the time.
This brings up a couple of interesting points:
– Watt has become more of an edge rusher than he is an interior defender if the Texans play more sub-packages than they do base.
– Clowney, and not Watt, is the player rushing from the inside most of the time.
Look at how far wide Watt is aligned on this play. He’s lined up as a wide-nine pass-rusher, well outside of even a TE, if there was one to that side of the formation. This is a 6-foot-5, 290-pound guy we’re talking about, who is a “3-4 defensive end” by trade. He is not supposed to be lining up anywhere near that far wide, let alone be effective doing it.
Clowney is also 6-foot-5, but is listed at just 266 pounds, a far more natural shape for an edge rusher. Just from a basic cookie-cutter logic standpoint if you were handed those two list weights and asked which guy would you want on the edge and which inside, you would flip the way the Texans are deploying them.
Two plays later, we saw Watt and Clowney aligned to the same side for the first time in the game. Again, the deployment was the reverse of what you might expect to happen with Watt on the edge and Clowney inside. What this particular alignment does, however, is really stress the right side of the Jets’ offensive line. It was 3rd-and-12, an obvious passing down, and the pair are both lined up outside of the offensive tackle, forcing the Jets’ RG and RT to really work towards the space to make their blocks, opening up room around them for Watt and Clowney to attack. Watt gets fast pressure around the outside, and Clowney isn’t far behind him, working inside the guard with a spin move.
It took until the start of the second quarter for Clowney to feature opposite Watt as part of a four-man line in their nickel defense, in place of Mercilus. This time, Watt is again lined up outside as the defensive left end, but Clowney is outside the rather imposing mass of Vince Wilfork as the defensive right end on the other side of the line.
Again, it’s worth noting that Watt is playing defensive end in a four-man line, rather than playing inside next to Wilfork. Watt has definitely transitioned into more of an edge rusher than he is an interior presence, and as soon as Houston can move him outside of his base alignment, they will. For Watt, this might make sense, in that he is just as devastating a pass-rusher outside (though I’m not 100 percent convinced he’s actually better there). He does generate pressure at a slightly higher rate outside than he does inside (14.8 percent of rushes, compared to 12.0 percent inside), but much of that is that he is playing outside in obvious pass-rushing situations, and the league-rate of pressure is higher for edge rushers than it is for interior defenders—it is ‘easier’ to generate pressure from the outside than it is from the interior of the formation.
With that in mind, the fact that Watt is able to generate so much inside and stay so close to his edge numbers suggests that he may actually be even more effective back inside where he began.
Clowney, on the other hand, is still inexperienced and developing, and the tape shows him still playing with only rudimentary pass-rushing technique and tools. He is getting by on athleticism and raw ability, which would likely be far more effective on the edge in space. Even when you dive a little deeper, it seems likely the Texans would be better served with Clowney on the edge and Watt inside, rather than their current preference for the opposite.
There are numerous instances in the game, though, where we see the effect that having Watt, Clowney, and Mercilus on the field at the same time can have. However inexperienced and raw Clowney is as a rusher, he is still an athletic freak and no easy task for an offensive lineman to deal with. Watt, of course, is Watt, and therefore a walking nightmare to haunt the pre-snap daydreams of whatever poor unfortunate soul is tasked with blocking him, wherever he lines up.
Take this play as an example. The Texans are showing five rushers at the line, and though they only come with four, it’s enough to ensure Watt is one-on-one out wide, and even the late help can only take out Clowney from the inside. This kind of combination threat makes it very tough on pass-protection to deal with, but you can’t help come away from this game disappointed by how little creativity the Texans are showing with the group.
This season, Mercilus has only lined up away from his preferred right outside linebacker spot on 60 pass-rushing snaps. Watt has played on the left side on 350 of his 410, and Clowney—the player moved around the most—has been on the right side on 141 of his 190 pass-rushing snaps, and you get the impression that the diversity in his exact alignment is as much finding a role for him as it is genuine ingenuity.
Houston has finally found a competent group of pass-rushers to complement J.J. Watt, and the potential of this trio is extremely high; but looking at the tape shows that the Texans don’t appear to be maximizing the destruction they are capable of, either by simple deployment, or in the creativity with which they arrange them together.
Maybe they are keeping things simple until they are sure Clowney and Mercilus won’t regress, or maybe they just aren’t prepared to make best use of their weaponry. However, if they can begin to expand what they do with this trio, they could become a devastating grouping down the stretch, propelling Houston into the playoffs, lying in wait for an unsuspecting AFC Wild Card team.