I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Watching J.J. Watt's film used to drive me friggin' nuts!
You see, I was an average sized defensive end back in the day, of average strength with average speed (at best). The only way I was able to compete with guys who were mostly bigger, stronger and faster than me was to rely on my technique more so than my physical gifts. There weren't many situations where I could just run around a block to make a play. No, I usually had to use my hands properly to get the guy off me, and then use proper foot work and escape moves to help me get off the block more often than not.
As a result, it's hard for me not to judge pretty harshly, as an analyst, on technique even if a player's production is high. That goes double for defensive linemen since that is my specialty. It also applies to a guy not being in a certain gap when he is supposed to be, or not keeping containment, or running around blocks when it is normally preferred that they take on that block. It annoys me when a player appears to be "cheating" to make plays and that gets all the attention rather than the times their freelancing actually hurts the rest of the team.
With Watt, especially early on, he was always making a shit ton of plays, but he would also tend to run himself upfield and out of plays by guessing quite a bit. That's fine when it just so happens that the guess is right, like on a bootleg when Watt was able to get quick pressure and maybe even a sack by sprinting up field for contain rather than playing the run block the offensive line is trying to show. And hey who is going to to complain if he does an arm-over to beat a run block so he can bring a running back down for a loss in the backfield.
It's not so good when he plays the pass and it turns out to be a sprint draw and the running back is able to run through the gaping hole because Watt was too busy trying to get another sack. When he was making all those arm-over moves playing the run that also allowed offensive linemen, who normally wouldn't be able to block him on their best day, knock him off balance and out of the play way too easily.
I did have to admit that his technique was pretty good on those arm-overs, etc. That really wasn't the problem. It was more of the kinds of moves he was using in certain situations that had me bugging. Like, I'm not used to seeing a dude with his size who is strong as a damn ox do arm-overs instead of just taking on the block and restricting the hole inside of him. That's the kind of shit you expect a smaller guy to do because he simply isn't strong enough to be that physical at the point of attack. It almost seemed to be taking the easy way out, and even if he did make a bunch of plays, it still struck me as ... wrong.
Yeah, Watt had the 20.5 sacks in his second year in the NFL, but I just knew the league would catch up to all that guessing at some point. In Watt's third season, he only had 10.5 sacks, so I thought, hey maybe I was onto something. Maybe he really was a flash in the pan who couldn't be productive unless he was guessing all the time. Maybe he was actually going to have to learn how to play with better discipline, just like the rest of us mere mortals.
Or maybe not.
In his fourth season, last year, Watt put up another 20.5 sack season, which is patently absurd, and it was then that I decided I needed to take a closer look at his game to see if maybe I just hadn't properly appreciated what he was doing up to that point. What I found is that while Watt does guess quite a bit, it's usually not as random as it seems. Whether it's film work or that he understands blocking schemes or a little bit of both, I don't think it's a coincidence anymore that he usually "guesses" right.
Oh, you still occasionally see him chasing quarterbacks up the field after they handed off the ball, but not as much as his first couple of seasons. Most of the time he was upfield this season, the quarterback still had the ball and was in a world of trouble. So, not only have I learned to live with Watt's, shall we say, unorthodox style of play for a man his size, I've actually come to appreciate it.
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Watt's performance in the Texans' win over the Jaguars last Sunday to clinch the AFC South crown and a playoff berth was just another example of the kind of mayhem this dude wreaks almost every weekend. With all that was on the line, he couldn't have chosen a better time to bounce back with a big game after struggling with a broken hand the previous several weeks. Going with a smaller cast likely added to the legend of J.J. Watt, which some fans seem to be souring on all of a sudden. Still, you can't deny that he played the way we are used to seeing him play on Sunday, which was not what we had seen with the bigger cast on.
Watt didn't waste any time making his presence felt as he was in on the tackle of Jaguars running back Denard Robinson on Jacksonville's first play from scrimmage. He then notched his first sack of the game two plays later with the Jaguars facing third-and-7 to force them to punt, ending their first possession. It was certainly a harbinger of things to come as the Jaguars struggled to block him all day. I'm not sure whose bright idea it was to not give Jacksonville's tackles much help with Watt for most of the game, but I can tell you it was a FUCKING MISTAKE!!!
It also didn't help that Jaguars right tackle Sam Young, the guy Watt beat on that first sack, was only making his third start of the year. Yeah, I know the Texans showed blitz, which may have briefly attracted the running back's attention, but watching Young try to block Watt on the edge on that play made it hard not to feel for the guy. Watt went with power straight to a rip move. He did it so fast that not only did Young give up the sack, he also got called for holding for trying to tackle Watt after he was already beaten. Even after all that, he still couldn't keep Watt off of his quarterback.
On a side note, the Texans decided to play around with Watt's alignment and actually lined him up at middle linebacker once and ran a double A gap blitz with Brian Cushing going first. He didn't get a sack on that play, but he did force Jags quarterback Blake Bortles to move from off his spot. Now, just imagine you are the running back tasked with blitz pick up on J.J. Watt who is coming from 5 yards away at linebacker depth with a full head of steam coming right at you. Might be a whole lotta "for who, for what" in that scenario, no?
That was cool to see, and I hope the Texans continue to move him around that way during the playoffs.
Back to the plays he actually did make, this dude had eight total tackles by my count on Sunday. Three were sacks, two others were tackles for a loss and there was another tackle that went for no gain.
Wait, I'm not done.
Additionally, Watt knocked down two passes, which are kinda his thing, forced a fumble on one of those sacks -- which his teammate Whitney Mercilus recovered -- and recovered a fumble that was caused by Cushing in the first half of the game.
Oh, and I should also point out that two out of his three sacks came when the Jaguars had matriculated the ball all the way down inside the Texans' 15-yard line. One of those sacks forced a field goal, the other was the aforementioned caused fumble.
Let me say this, too. As I said earlier, I've noticed more people souring on Watt's "act" this year, and hey, that's their right. When that turns into looking for reasons to devalue his play on the field, however, that's where things tend to turn left.
For instance, I've seen and heard people question just how good Watt is because he primarily rushes as a left defensive end. On its face, that doesn't make much sense because the man I consider the best defensive lineman the NFL has ever seen -- Hall of Famer and VFL Reggie White, may he rest in peace -- rushed from left defensive end for almost all of his career. I never heard one peep from anybody questioning whether his numbers were legit. Hell, two of the more exciting young pass rushers in the league right now, Von Miller and Khalil Mack, also rush a lot from the left side, and I never hear the same criticism.
But for those folks who have decided this is the way to go to make Watt's accomplishments somehow lesser, it's worth noting that two out of his three sacks against the Jaguars came against their left tackle Luke Joeckel. Now Joeckel isn't exactly a world beater, but you can say that of several starting left tackles in the league these days. The point being, when a guy gets as many sacks as Watt has so far in his career, rushing from all over the place, trying to say it's only because he is listed as a left defensive end only makes you look pretty damn stupid. Let's not do that anymore.
Watt's production was a huge part of why Jacksonville's offense was shut down most of the game and could only manufacture all of six points in the season finale. Watt's big day also allowed him to retake the league lead in sacks with 17.5, whilst likely nailing down his third Defensive Player Of The Year award in his five seasons. That's what I call ending the regular season on a high note.
Watt had six (!) multi-sack games this year. On the flip side, Watt only had six games all year where he didn't record at least one sack, without even mentioning the crazy number of pressures and quarterback hits he also recorded. Do you understand how ridiculous those numbers are? Are you sure? Because I root for my old team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, every week and they haven't had a single guy reach double digit sacks in over a decade. I personally don't give a shit anymore if he guesses now and then, if it means he can have that kind of production. If guessing was all it took, everybody would be doing it.
I was intending to do a Hoss Of The Week post for the last weekend of the season and also a separate Hoss Of The Year post later this week, but after thinking it over I figured there's no need to for two separate posts when J.J. Watt obviously deserves both for his play this week and the rest of this season.
No defensive lineman or rush linebacker had the impact that Watt had this year, and I damn sure can't think of anyone who showed up more when their team needed them the most. The Texans won their division and are going to the playoffs largely because of that fact. For all that Watt has done this year, especially this past Sunday, I hereby name him both the Hoss Of The Week for Week 17 as well as my Hoss Of The Year for 2015. I'm sure it won't be the last award he'll be collecting.