Selecting Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft not only gave the Houston Texans a generational prospect but also gave J.J. Watt the kind of complementary piece he has never had during his time in the NFL.
Watt was arguably the best defender in the NFL last season, but his team still finished with the worst record.
The quarterback position clearly outweighs any defensive position in terms of on-field impact, but pairing Watt with Clowney should allow the defense as a whole to flourish. Watt was the only disruptive force for the Texans last season, so it was relatively easy for the offense to adjust its game plan around him.
By bringing in Clowney, the Texans should be able to not only get more pressure upfront but make it more difficult for defenses to game-plan for each individual pass-rusher.
Having multiple high-quality pass-rushers in today's NFL is massively important for the success of any defense. While there are some teams who can work around a lack of quality upfront, a Football Outsiders' statistic that measures defensive efficiency suggests it's easier to be effective when you have a front that applies premium pressure on opposing quarterbacks.The advanced metric, known as Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), looks at every single play throughout a team's season.
Watt and Clowney together alone won't make the Texans defense a top-10-caliber unit, but defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel can make them the foundation of a defense that has the potential for long-term greatness.
Even though Clowney will likely play outside linebacker for the Texans, Crennel can move him around and ask him to line up in different spots. When Crennel had Tamba Hali and Justin Houston with Kansas City in 2012, he rarely asked Hali to drop into coverage, per Pro Football Focus writer Pete Damilatis:
About Jadeveon Clowney in the Texans 3-4: Romeo Crennel dropped Tamba Hali into coverage on just 8.6% of his snaps in 2012.— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) April 9, 2014
In a press conference on May 8, Houston Texans General Manager Rick Smith said, "I fully expect that he [Clowney] will be an outside linebacker initially." He continued, "He’ll start in a two-point stance, but anytime we go into any kind of package, whether it’s a third down package or a packaged predicated on personnel, down and distance, all those things give Romeo (Crennel) the ability to have him put his hand in the dirt and go get the passer."
Clowney is a phenomenal prospect, but he is also still somewhat raw and needs to be developed. That would be the case if he played defensive end, so changing to a new position as an outside linebacker should make the transition even tougher.
Because Hali was more of an established all-around player when he played under Crennel, that 8 percent mark should be seen as the ceiling of how many snaps Clowney will spend dropping into coverage during his rookie season.
The 21-year-old's value to the Texans will come as a pass-rusher.
While Clowney doesn't have a variety of moves or a great ability to bend the edge, he's still powerful enough and quick enough off the snap to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Providing Crennel doesn't look to limit him, Clowney could play as a pass-rusher from either side of the defensive line or between the tackles in different situations. Because of that, it will be very difficult for offenses to account for both players on every single snap.
Crennel has many options with his defensive front.
Four-Man Front Combinations: Stunting
Although Watt is primarily thought of as a 3-4 defensive lineman, he is so talented that he transcends the limitations of assignments and schemes.
Watt got to the quarterback 11 times during the 2013 season for 10.5 official sacks. Six of those sacks came on plays when he lined up in a 4-3 defense, with two each at left defensive tackle, two at left defensive end and one at right defensive end.
During the 2012 season, 13 of Watt's 24 sacks (counting half-sacks as full sacks) came on plays when he lined up in a four-man front.
Watt is comfortable playing either defensive end or tackle. He can rush the passer from either side of the field with the same level of effectiveness. The question in four-man fronts isn't where Watt lines up, but rather where to put Clowney.
Both Watt and Clowney are big-bodied defensive linemen who are quick off the snap and move well laterally. If they line up alongside each other, look for the two to use stunts to overwhelm the side of the offensive line they are lined up against.
Just like Aldon Smith and Justin Smith in San Francisco, this could become a staple of the team's pass rush and lead to clean runs at the quarterback.
The beauty of running stunts with Clowney and Watt is that even if the offensive linemen react well to the initial crossing action, both players could still continue to work their way through the blocks to the quarterback. Having built up momentum on the initial movement, it would take a technically sound and strong blocker to prevent any pressure.
The negative side of running stunts with Clowney and Watt is it takes away from their ability to beat blocks off the snap. Opposing offenses will likely adapt a quick passing attack against the Texans next season, thereby negating any confusion the stunts might hope to cause.
Pocket Collapsing: Coming off the Edges
Concentrating the strength of the pass rush in one area can be an effective way of intimidating the offense before the snap and limiting what it can do with its play call. Similar effects can be created with more traditional lineups, though.
On the Texans depth chart come the start of the season, Watt will likely be listed as the starting left defensive end, and Clowney will likely be listed as the starting right outside linebacker.
Even though Watt is technically an interior defensive lineman in that formation, he will regularly be lined up over the offensive tackle or the gap between the guard and offensive tackle on that side. The specific position labels aren't as important when it comes to rushing the passer.
When it comes to rushing the passer, Watt as a 3-4 defensive end and Clowney as a 3-4 outside linebacker can easily mirror the look of both players playing defensive end in a four-man front.
This is the most common use of pass-rushing duos in the NFL. When you look at Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson in Carolina, Hali and Houston in Kansas City, Robert Quinn and Chris Long in St. Louis or even the expected partnership of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller with Denver in 2014, you find that they primarily play outside.
That is partially because the defense wants to collapse the pocket around the quarterback, but it's also because those players are primarily suited to play outside instead of inside.
When it comes to Clowney and Watt, you have two players who fit more along the lines of Arizona's Calais Campbell and John Abraham, Chicago's Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, Kyle and Mario Williams in Buffalo or Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in Seattle.
In an ideal scenario, the Texans would be able to have their dynamic pass-rushing duo work off the edge and from the inside to constantly keep the defense off balance. However, that plan is dependant on getting quality play from the other players around Clowney and Watt.
If Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed don't give them enough quality outside, then Clowney and Watt will spend a lot of time working the edges. If Mercilus and Reed are as good as they're expected to be, then Watt and Clowney can be deployed in different ways.
Attacking the Interior: The Clowney, Nix, Watt 3-4 Front
While the Texans got the best prospect in the draft, they may have also got the best value when they selected Louis Nix in the third round.
Nix is a nose tackle who starred on Notre Dame's 2012 team that reached the BCS National Championship Game. After that season, he was billed as a first-rounder because of his ability to eat up space in the running game and still push the pocket as a pass-rusher.
However, Nix's quality of play dropped off in 2013 as he dealt with a knee injury that seemingly lingered.
He fell to the third round through a combination of his 2013 season, his injury and the potential that he will only be a two-down player in the NFL. Two-down players aren't very valuable in the NFL anymore because it is a passing league, but in the right situations they can make a big impact.
The versatility of Clowney and Watt extends from playing anywhere in a four-man front to Clowney playing as a 3-4 defensive end and Watt playing as a 3-4 nose tackle.
Watt as a nose tackle does little to help the rest of the Texans front seven, but Clowney as a defensive end in a three-man front could allow Nix to flourish. If the Texans have Clowney and Watt lined up over the offensive guards with Nix over the center, they should be able to create that invaluable interior pressure that quarterbacks fear more than anything else.
By moving Watt and Clowney inside, it becomes easier for the offensive line to double-team them. However, Watt has proved he can get to the quarterback through double-teams, and if they double-team both defensive ends inside, that will create matchup advantages for Nix and the edge-rushers outside.
Brooks Reed may be an average outside linebacker, and Whitney Mercilus may still be waiting to deliver on the promise he showed in college, but both players should expect to get to the quarterback quickly if repeatedly left alone in space against tight ends and running backs.
That is the dilemma that faces the offense with both Clowney and Watt inside. If they don't double-team both players, they risk putting an offensive guard alone against one of the most talented pass-rushers in the NFL or one of the most feared rookie defensive linemen to ever come out of college.
Nix's presence gives this lineup balance. Playing Clowney inside would be dangerous because he could be susceptible to the run at that spot, but Nix's ability to eat space and Watt's ability to penetrate would hide his vulnerability.
Even if the Texans space the defensive line more by moving both defensive ends outside of the guards but on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackles, the dilemma would still remain for the offense.
Stressing Space: Clowney, Watt and Blitzing from the Other Side
Having a pair of high-quality individual pass-rushers will make the Texans reluctant to blitz. They will expect to get pressure by just rushing four and dropping the rest of the defense into coverage. However, there will be times when Crennel needs to send more than four after the quarterback.
In 3rd-and-long situations, the Texans should get creative.
Clowney and Watt will draw the attention of the opposition's blocking scheme, so putting them in the best spot to stress the pass protection is the key to creating effective blitzes. If the Texans line up Clowney and Watt together on one side of the line, while blitzing the other side of the line, it will be very difficult for the protection to adjust.
The above image diagrams a blitz that would make it very difficult for the offense to double-team both Clowney and Watt without limiting the number of receivers they can send out in routes. The offense can try to handle this blitz in a variety of ways.
With this protection call, the running back helps the left tackle while the center and left guard slide to the left.
This means that both Clowney and Watt are double-teamed on the quarterback's blind side. However, this leaves the other three players rushing the passer one-on-one in space. Furthermore, the defense has six players in coverage to cover a maximum of three receivers.
Teams with better left tackles won't be intimidated by Clowney during his rookie season.
Instead, they will leave their left tackle alone with Clowney, while double-teaming Watt. On these plays, the offense will be able to release another receiver into a route, but it will also leave four pass-rushers working in one-on-one situations.
Only the bravest of offenses will leave both Clowney and Watt in one-on-one situations.
Even though the quarterback would have five options to read through in this situation, he likely wouldn't have the chance to do anything but get rid of the ball quickly. In any 3rd-and-long situation, a quick pass or screen would work in the defense's favor.
Similarly, if the offense decided to roll the pocket away from Clowney and Watt, it would take away half of the field for the quarterback and his receivers.
This is a simple blitz concept. It doesn't feature any stunts or delayed rushes. It doesn't even feature any second-level rushes or disguises. It shows the offense what is coming and relies on the talent of two specific players to shift the number balance in the defense's advantage.
Third-and-longs should always be to the defense's advantage, but using Clowney and Watt correctly could push the advantage even further towards the Texans.