Breaking Down How J.J. Watt Drives Quarterbacks Insane

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Breaking Down How J.J. Watt Drives Quarterbacks Insane
Bob Levey/Getty Images

When J.J. Watt steps onto the football field, his goal isn't just to physically take down quarterbacks. Instead, he looks to emotionally bury them as well.

"It gives you energy when you see a quarterback demoralized."

Of the six quarterbacks Watt and the Houston Texans have faced this season, four have put up passer ratings well below their season average. Ryan Tannehill, Blaine Gabbert, Peyton Manning and Mark Sanchez have all become demoralized as Watt has driven them to insanity and poor play.

Watt is quickly redefining how the defensive end position is viewed—especially in the 3-4 defense. He is not just the best this season; he is currently putting together one of the best seasons ever by a defensive end in the 3-4. 

via Pro Football Focus

To explain the graphic above, Pro Football Focus uses a cumulative score based on play week-to-week. Through Week 6, Watt's play has put him on par with the cumulative score of many 3-4 DEs throughout the entire season. He is also, clearly, head and shoulders above his nearest peer.

Football Outsiders—another group of analytics gurus—puts Watt's superlatives this way:

At FO, we credit defenders with a "defeat" for all plays that result in negative yardage, a turnover or a stop on third or fourth down. Put that all together, and Watt already has 17 defeats this season, which is far and away the most in the league. (Clay Matthews is in second place with 11.) Jared Allen led the league with 33 defeats in 2011; Watt is already halfway to that total after only four games.

No matter what metric someone uses or whether they just "trust their eyes," it is undeniable that Watt is putting together one of the truly great season-long performances in NFL history.

How does Watt do it? How does he drive these quarterbacks insane?

 

Ridiculous Athleticism

Perhaps our own NFL editor, Ian Kenyon, said it best:

 

Remember that Watt went from the tight end position at Central Michigan to leaving school and becoming a pizza boy. Later, he would walk onto the Wisconsin Badgers roster and solidify his spot as a first-round defensive end prospect.

The draft case for Watt, especially after the scouting combine, wasn't necessarily everything he had done as a Badger. No, instead, the best case for Watt being selected so high was the notion that there are only so many people on this planet that are that big and that athletic.

Bill Parcells called it the "Planet Theory." Impact players are found everywhere in the draft and free agency, but teams take chances on freak athletes like Watt because they are so rare.

 

Scheming For a Sack

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

As to why the Texans selected Watt, let's allow B/R's own Scott Carasik to explain:

The strongside [sic] DE's job, while a more traditional 6-tech stance you would find in the 4-3, is to be a penetrator on the end. He should be able to tie up the OT and TE in the run game if blocked and provide enough push to help the blitzing OLB in the pass game come in clean.

This description of the Bum Phillips (now Wade Phillips) 3-4 defense was written prior to the 2011 draft. Houston was in the middle of installing the scheme, and Carasik laid out who would be the ideal prospect for their need at strong-side DE—Wisconsin's J.J. Watt.

See, the Texans' meteoric rise on the defensive side of the ball is not just about bringing in freak athletes and correct personnel. Phillips failed as a head coach and (at his age) may never get another shot at running a team.

As a defensive coordinator, however, he may be the best in the NFL.

While discussing the zone blitz—popularized in the NFL by Dick LeBeau and now employed by just about everyone—Chris Brown of Smart Football and Grantland.com broke down one of Watt's sacks:

The sack, like most outcomes in football, was a product of some other, often unnoticed factor. Watt gets the credit, but without [linebacker Bradie] James's disruption, he would not have been able to bring down Gabbert...Despite having four wide receivers running routes, no one was open. Phillips had called for a blitz, and although Gabbert was surrounded by Texans, it was the coverage that sealed his fate.

A large part of the Texans' success and Watt's ascent this season (currently leading the NFL with 9.5 sacks) has been perfect execution within a well-planned scheme.

Watt is the statistical beneficiary of Phillips' genius, not by happenstance or even by design. Instead, it is that aforementioned phenomenal athleticism and his ridiculously high motor that leads to what is quickly becoming an embarrassment of accolades.

Remember that Phillips has coached a number of fantastic pass-rushers over his long career. Reggie White and Bruce Smith both did what made them famous at the same position (though White did so in a 4-3 front). Phillips has also had great outside linebackers in his scheme—DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips, Simon Fletcher.

Phillips' scheme does not necessarily have a trigger man. Instead, when he dials up a blitz, it's akin to placing a bag of raw meat on the quarterback and unleashing the hounds.

Watt, as the alpha dog, is getting awfully great at getting there first.


The Anatomy of a Swat

Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

We all know, however, that it's not just the lofty sack totals that are making headlines for Watt and the Texans. Out of seemingly nowhere, Watt has joined the Houston pantheon of shot-blockers, and he has done so without donning a Rockets jersey.

But this didn't come out of nowhere. Wisconsin fans always knew that Watt had serious ups. He's always had the batted pass as part of his game and even dabbles in batting down field-goal attempts.

We've talked about Watt's athleticism, but what about his freakish wingspan? Watt's 82.5 inches of muscle is almost seven feet of pass swattage. The man himself listed it as a key contributor to his success in an interview with ESPN's Tom Jackson.

"I think the wingspan helps a lot because, not only can I go straight up, but I can adjust my arms if I see he's going to throw to the side," said Watt.

Yes, J.J., yes you can.

Watt went on to explain that this isn't just a freak thing, and it isn't just being in the right place at the right time. No, Watt is coming into each game attempting to block passes.

Telling Jackson what he does when he sees the QB is in a three-step drop: "I'm coming off the line and expecting a quick route...as soon as he cocks his arm, I'm going up."

He also explained how the strategy against a seven-step drop is different, even if the outcome is the same.

Watt is, to some degree, shedding everything we know about defensive line play. In high schools around the country, coaches are dreading their linemen's attempts to copy Watt as they repeat the age-old mantra: Never leave your feet.

Watt is purposefully leaving his feet, often, as he creates separation from the offensive linemen and heads skyward with his freakish athleticism and massive wingspan. It isn't a last-resort effort to make a play when beaten; instead, he's lying in wait, coiled up like a cobra ready to strike.

To many, the sack has been king as long as it has been a quantifiable stat. Now, Watt is showing that sacks are just part of the overall package in physically and emotionally driving quarterbacks insane.

 

Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."

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