Houston needed a win Sunday, and with Jadeveon Clowney sidelined once again, Houston Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus stepped up and balled the hell out when his number was called to help get that dub. No, it may not have earned him a starting job, but it has earned him my Hoss of the Week honors for Week 8 of the NFL season.
Mercilus stepped in for Clowney against the Titans (Clowney hurt his back early in the first quarter) and once again, Mercilus' production sky rocketed. Even without having actually started the game, Mercilus ended up notching 3.5 sacks on the day plus another tackle for a loss. Oh, he also would have recorded another sack had he not accidentally hit Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the face mask as he was taking him down, which resulted in a personal foul penalty.
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Mercilus' game is such a contrast with Clowney's.
Clowney still relies heavily on his size and athletic ability. Mercilus is all about technique. Take a look at all of his sacks and you'll see a wide repertoire of pass-rush moves. The first sack, the one that wasn't, Mercilus did a great job side-stepping a cut block against what was supposed to be quick game. Instead of getting the ball out of his hand quickly, as the protection called for, Mettenberger had a brain fart and decided to hold onto the ball.
(h/t Pernell Mcphee)
Mercilus accidentally put his hand on Mettenberger's face mask, sure, but that was still one hell of a play.
His first actual sack that counted happened on the first play of the Titan's attempted two-minute drill in the first half. Mercilus beat Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan with a really good window wiper move on Lewan's hands. Then, Mercilus transitioned quickly to a rip move. Mettenberger didn't stand a chance.
His second recorded sack came early in the third quarter off a blitz where he started up field at right outside linebacker then looped all the way around to the opposite A gap and basically ended up being a free runner. Again, not much Mettenberger could do once Mercilus hit that turbo button running through the A gap.
Mercilus' third sack came early in the fourth quarter. He basically just gave Lewan an old fashioned ass kicking. Mercilus exploded into a bull rush that knocked Lewan back about five yards as if he were wearing skates. Then Mercilus ripped off the block to Lewan's inside shoulder. Once free, he took Mettenberger down again and he wasn't gentle about it. That sequence sounds violent, and it was, but it actually happened so fast that if you blinked you might have missed it. That's what happens when you know how to use proper pass rush technique.
Oh, Mercilus still wasn't done.
With a little less than six minutes left in the game, Mercilus ate Lewan's lunch again. This time, Mercilus drove into Lewan's chest like he was going to bull rush him again, but as soon as Lewan sat down on his power rush, Mercilus ripped off the block to Lewan's outside shoulder. That escape move was a thing of beauty. Lewan didn't have a chance in hell of catching up to Mercilus once he stopped his feet to block the bull rush.
Mercilus was only able to get half a sack that time because J.J. Watt -- who had a helluva game in his own right -- was able to bull rush through backup left tackle Jamon Meredith while avoiding a chip block to make contact with Mettenberger simultaneously on the sack.
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If Mercilus hated Jadeveon Clowney's guts deep down, I would not hold it against him. Let me be clear, I'm not saying that he does in fact hate Clowney's guts, for all I know they are great friends. I'm just saying it would be very understandable if he wanted all the bad things in life to happen to Jadeveon Clowney and only Clowney.
Lookit, Mercilus had his best year ever in 2013, starting all 16 regular season games and notching seven sacks. In normal seasons that kind of consistency and production might have afforded Mercilus some new cash and/or greater job security in the offseason. Instead, the Texans drafted Clowney first overall the next spring, which immediately sent Mercilus right back to the bench.
Talk about a punch in the gut.
Mercilus didn't pout. He just kept working his tail off and eventually ended up starting 13 games because of Clowney's injuries last season and coming home with another five sacks. Mind you, Clowney couldn't manage to record a single sack before going on injured reserve last season. That's just a fact.
I'm sure Mercilus had to be thinking to himself that his performance with Clowney out had to have impressed the powers that be in Houston and maybe, just maybe, he would be afforded an outside shot of unseating Clowney in a somewhat open competition during camp.
That did not happen. Clowney didn't play a single down in the preseason and still got the starting nod in Week 1.
It's not exactly earth shattering that a team gifted a starting job to their No. 1 pick. However, for the player who gets benched in favor of that guy, logic doesn't always matter when you think you have earned that position. Sports are supposed to be the great equalizer, where the best players play with no politics involved ... in fantasy bizarro NFL world at least. In the real world, draft status and free agent contracts certainly influence decisions on who starts and how much certain guys play. Mercilus had to know he could never actually beat out Clowney this early in his career, but it still had to sting when Week 1 rolled around and he was mostly watching from the sideline.
I have mad respect for Mercilus, though, because once again he didn't hang his head or start moping around feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he has been ready to spell Clowney whenever he needs to and more than ready to step in when Clowney has gone down again with injury. Two weeks ago when Clowney sat out against the Jaguars with an ankle injury, Mercilus stepped right in and notched two sacks in his first start this season.
Clowney still hadn't recorded his first NFL sack at that point, and for what it's worth, Clowney currently has one career sack.
And yet Mercilus still knows that if Clowney is healthy next weekend, he's probably going right back to the bench.
That's gotta be some frustrating stuff, mane.
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I'm still a Clowney fan. I also know that plenty of guys' careers have started off slow because of injuries but they still ultimately balled out once they finally got healthy. We have a guy down here in Tampa by the name of Gerald McCoy who went third in the draft some years ago and now has several Pro Bowls under his belt. He is undoubtedly one of the best defensive tackles in the game now, but some Bucs fans were convinced he was a bust after two injury-plagued seasons to start his career. It's not how you start, it's how you finish.
I will also say that Clowney's play this season against the run -- taking on blocks with his hands and setting the edge for instance -- has now become a strength for him, after being the weakest part of his game coming out of college. He has been tremendous playing off blockers, and quite frankly, better than I thought he would be at this point in his career, injuries or not. Even with the microfracture knee surgery last season, you can still see his explosiveness on the field. The more reps he gets, the closer Clowney gets to being a monster worthy of the first pick in the draft.
Unfortunately, he just can't seem to stay healthy so far.
Back when I was fortunate enough to play in the NFL, I heard and took to heart this saying: "The most important ability in the league is availability."
Teams feel like they need guys they can depend on week in and week out, plain and simple. If you can't play, for whatever reason, then at some point they stop trusting you to be there when they need you. That is not to say that all injuries can be avoided or that any player is responsible for getting hurt, but GMs and coaches don't really give a shit how or why you're hurt. What they care about is that they won't have your services to help them win a game. At some point, if Clowney truly can't stay healthy, the worm will turn for him, too.
The Texans can't bury their head in the sand to what Mercilus is doing every time he gets game reps this season. At the end of the day, Whitney Mercilus should take heart in the fact that if he continues to ball like that when he gets opportunities this year, he will end up starting for somebody eventually.