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J.J. Watt is simply the most dominant defender in the game today.
Despite playing as a 3-4 defensive end, he's in the hunt for the sack title, tied in first place with only 3.5 sacks to go in order to attain the record. He's competing with 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers, who usually rack up the best sack statistics.
He's already broken the record for 3-4 defensive ends, and looks to shatter it this year. Watt's season is unheard of, and should go down as the best season in 3-4 defensive end history.
Not only is he disrupting the passing game with prodigious sack numbers, he also leads the league in batted passes at 15, more than most cornerbacks have in their pass deflection numbers. Watt's intuition, intelligence and ability to read the play are nearly unparalleled, and his timing has allowed him to be a factor on a significant number of plays where he's been blocked out of disrupting the passer.
In addition to his sacks and batted passes, Watt also has the most hits (22) and hurries (25) of any 3-4 defensive linemen, and exceeds the pass-rushing prowess of most 4-3 defensive ends this year in pass rusher productivity—a measure of how often one pressures the quarterback per pass-rushing snap.
Running at Watt is a poor proposition as well, as he leads the league in defensive run-stop percentage—a metric developed by the folks at Pro Football Focus that measures how often a player in a running play records a defensive "stop" (defined as a failed play when running the ball). That is, he is not just better than other 3-4 ends, but every single player in every single defensive position, and it's not very close.
The best 4-3 defensive ends will stop the run on just under 10 percent of their run snaps, while inside linebackers will generally stop at a rate of 14 percent at their best. Defensive tackles who do real damage stop opponent runs around 12 percent of the time, while strong safeties are big saviors in the run game, stopping plays at 14 to 15 percent, if they are elite.
J.J. Watt will stop the run on 18.7 percent of running downs, and the second-place Justin Smith—an elite end by all accounts—will record a stop on 11.7 percent of running downs.
Watt has a number of historical advantages for those playing in his system that make him extremely hard to contain. The first is that he'll play either two-gap defense or one-gap defense, but will usually attack a single gap, like a defensive tackle in nearly every 4-3 system. He will line up directly over an offensive lineman on many occasions and give a look that implies that he's willing not to penetrate, but merely handle the blocker in front of him, then will pick a gap immediately after the snap to attack it.
It makes him extremely unpredictable and hard to defend, especially because Watt has a preternatural ability to attack the gap that would best disrupt the play.
His second advantage is that Watt can play anywhere on the line. He usually lines up over the right guard (a 5-technique) but will find himself lining up over or outside either tackle or even occasionally right over center (called 0-technique). This allows him to hide tendencies in-game from other linemen while also focusing on weak links.
For the Vikings this means identifying where Watt is on every single down and having a plan for him. He can laterally attack gaps better than nearly anyone, making him difficult to trap, but he still generally relies on two moves—his prime pass-rushing move and a counter-move, both of which rely on his excellent use of hands and leverage.
Scheming around Watt isn't a bad idea, and the Vikings should be able to disguise their intentions in the run game with counters and pitches while protecting Ponder on passing downs by crashing down on Watt.