Three years ago when Jadeveon Clowney was coming out of college, I wrote my very first formal draft breakdown for SB Nation about him. Even though I found him to be lacking in the technique department, I felt that his physical gifts were too plentiful for any team to pass him up. I wholeheartedly endorsed him being the top pick, and felt strongly that he would fit well in Houston at outside linebacker and create a "dynamic duo" with J.J. Watt that would give opposing offenses fits for the next decade.
Then, after two mostly underwhelming, injury-plagued seasons (including dreaded micro-fracture surgery on his knee), I still decided to pick Clowney as one of my breakout players for this season. It was not because I was holding onto what might have been an erroneous initial impression of him a couple of years ago, but rather because I watched his film last season the cat showed a lot of growth ... when he was healthy.
It was obvious that Clowney had spent a great deal of his rehab time his first season making #GAINZ in the weight room. His technique as a run defender greatly improved, as well. All of a sudden I'm seeing him rag doll some of the better blocking tight ends in the league. And he was still cat-quick out in space, making plays that I've only seen a few other defensive linemen ever make on a consistent basis. He was still raw as a pass rusher, but the added strength was apparent in his bull rushes, as well. Clowney was getting reliable push against damn near every tackle he faced.
In 2015 there were so many instances when I'd see Clowney have a big game and think he was about to turn the corner, then read a few days later that he was questionable for the next game. I'm sure my frustration watching him wasn't even a fraction of the frustration that he felt — but man, just seeing a guy with that much talent continue to have his body betray him was still just that: extremely frustrating.
What made me believe that he could finally overcome the injury bug, was the fact that 2016 was going to be the first offseason that Clowney was fully healthy as an NFL player. Finally, rather than having to do rehab, he would be able to focus on getting bigger, stronger, and faster, AND sharpening up his technique. As long as he stayed healthy, I felt confident that this year we would see the best version of Clowney since he was drafted No. 1 overall.
Some rushed to label the kid a bust. This season would be the perfect opportunity to show them the error of their ways and justify the Texans’ decision to take him in 2014.
And then Houston announced that Clowney would be playing defensive end instead of outside linebacker.
Some folks will try to convince you that playing defensive line on a team that runs a base 3-4 defense isn't much different than playing defensive end in a base 4-3 defense. They say that most teams play a lot of nickel with only four defensive front guys, even in a base 3-4. I'm here to tell you that that is way too damn simplistic.
When you have a 4-3 upfield attacking style defense you generally want somewhat smaller guys who have some pass rush ability and can get off the ball quickly. With a 3-4, even when you use four down linemen in nickel, those linemen are usually bigger guys who are better run stuffers than pass rushers. Rather than get upfield and be disruptive, the two inside linemen try to occupy either two blockers or two gaps.
And when you are listed as a defensive end in a 3-4, that often means you have to kick inside and become a defensive tackle when the defense does go to a 4-3 alignment. The thought of Clowney lining up at 3-technique and trying to take on double teams from guards and tackles against the run made me nervous about my prediction. I still thought we would see the best Clowney we had seen yet, I just wasn't sure how long we would see him if he had to take that kind of pounding game after game.
To my surprise, Clowney actually thrived at defensive end early in the season, which the Texans sorely needed with J.J. Watt trying to come back from a serious back injury. That injury led to Watt having surgery and being ruled out for the year, putting more focus on Clowney, and yet Clowney seemed to improve every week.
Then sometime around Week 11, something changed.
At the time, I didn't study the film in enough depth to understand what was going on, but I was pretty sure Clowney was in the midst of a sizable leap forward. Like he had been playing well, but he "only" had three sacks in the first 12 weeks of the season, then all of a sudden he was flashing more as a pass rusher. He missed Week 13 against the Packers, but he came back and had a sack in each of his next three games, including a significant one late against the Colts that helped to seal a win. He then missed the last game of the regular season against the Titans.
I thought a rested Clowney was really going to get after it against the Raiders. The man did not disappoint. But his big game reminded me to go back and try to see what changed since that first Oakland game in Mexico City in Week 11.
A confluence of events led to Clowney going back to outside linebacker, his more natural position.
First, Texans rookie defensive end D.J. Reader, one of those big fellas you will find at defensive end in a 3-4, earned his first start of the season in Week 8 against Detroit. He had showed over the early part of the season that he was ready to take on a more significant role, and he did a nice job.
Then veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork missed the Jaguars game in Week 10, which allowed another rookie "big" defensive end, Joel Heath, the chance to start. He, like Reader, showed that he was ready to take on a bigger role.
The final domino was Texans outside linebacker John Simon, who started most of the season opposite Whitney Mercilus. He ended up with a serious chest injury in — you guessed it — the Week 11 loss to the Raiders.
Sometimes when the Texans would go to a four-man line, they would put in Simon as the edge player and line up Clowney inside. Basically, Simon was lining up where I thought Clowney would be lining up all season. With Simon out, the Texans had to decide how best to replace him and they, smartly, decided to use Clowney and roll with the big rookies at defensive end.
Clowney was back to standing up on occasion, but most importantly he was almost always out on the edge and in space where he could finally show off the full extent of his athleticism. Gone were the guard and tackle double teams for the most part, and now you had tight ends trying to block him one on one.
I just chuckled to myself IRL.
Oh, and now he was able to mix in a lot more finesse pass rush moves into his rotation.
Turns out a healthy Clowney out in space is hard to fucking block.
It was no wonder then that Clowney's performance Saturday against Oakland was much different from their first go-around. Of course, some of that had to do with starting left tackle Donald Penn being out and the Raiders having to roll with rookie quarterback Connor Cook in place of Derek Carr and Matt McGloin.
Regardless, he was a friggin’ wrecking ball all game.
I will say that if you didn't see the game, you might be looking at the stat sheet and thinking I'm a fool, but let me give you the run down of many of the plays on which Clowney had an impact.
First up: At the 10:37 mark in the first quarter the Raiders had a second-and-9 and they tried to run a quick screen to Seth Roberts from the slot to Clowney's side. Clowney, who was playing on the edge as the right defensive end, was able to avoid a cut block by Menelik Watson and still get his right hand in the throwing lane to tip the pass up in the air. The ball ended up falling out of Clowney’s reach to catch it, but that should have been a warning to the Raiders.
They didn't listen.
Later in the first quarter, the Raiders were foolish enough to try Clowney again with a screen to his side. This time Oakland decided to roll the pocket away from him then throw it back to running back Latavius Murray on one of those "oh shit" screens. I guess they thought Clowney would be too busy trying to catch Cook from behind to notice the running back slipping behind him for the screen.
Instead Clowney was again able to tip the ball up in the air, but this time, after a few more tips to himself, he was able to secure the ball for the interception and fall forward to the Oakland 9-yard line.
Texans running back Lamar Miller would run the ball in for a touchdown on the next play to give the Texans, a team with Brock Osweiller starting at quarterback, a 10-0 lead to start the game.
Now near the beginning of the second quarter, the Raiders had a first-and-10 at the Texans’ 43-yard line and they tried to run the ball with Murray. Unfortunately for him, that running play called for tight end Clive Walford to try to block Clowney one-on-one.
I wish I could accurately convey what Clowney did to Walford on that play, but words are failing. It’s like he jacked Walford up for a split second and then just decided he wasn't even worth the effort and straight up discarded him. Yeah, that's about as good of a description as I can give you. Clowney discarded him and came off inside to intercept Murray just after he crossed the line of scrimmage. After a violent collision, Clowney was able to hold Murray to a gain of just one yard.
Two plays later, with the Raiders facing a third-and-9, Clowney again made his presence felt. Oakland tried to put Walford to his side to help out Watson on a pass. Unfortunately for both of them the Texans were blitzing on that play and that blitz called for Clowney to go inside of Watson and away from Walford's block.
The trouble began for the Raiders when Watson saw Texans defensive tackle Antonio Smith looping around outside. Watson decided to try to turn Clowney over to the left guard Kelechi Osemele so he could switch off to Smith, but then Osemele also spotted Smith and decided he would try to block him. With both Watson and Osemele trying to block Smith, nobody blocked Clowney, who came free right up the middle and forced Cook into speeding up his throw to receiver Amari Cooper — a throw that was almost picked off by Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Later on with, a little less than eight minutes left in the second quarter, Houston called another blitz for Clowney to go inside. This time, however, Clowney was lined up at 3-technique on Osemele's outside shoulder.
Osemele was able to successfully turn Clowney over to the center, Rodney Hudson, but Clowney (whom I may have mentioned earlier is now strong as a damn ox), was able to overpower Hudson and push him back into the backfield. Clowney ended up on his knees, but he literally crawled all the way to Cook and hit him just after forcing him into another hurried throw. Once again Joseph, had another good chance for a pick.
Even after all that, Oakland still evidently hadn't learned their lesson about throwing screens against Houston and tried once more to complete one with a little over a minute left to go in the first half. This time they were smart enough to throw it away from Clowney's side, but the play didn't turn out much better. With Mercilus covered the intended target, Murray, and Cook held onto the ball too long. Clowney almost got to Cook for a sack and potential forced fumble. At the last minute, Cook wisely threw the ball into the ground to avoid another disaster, but it still counted as a pressure for Clowney.
The very next play Clowney showed why he is so dangerous in space. The Texans had Smith lined up in the right A gap and linebacker Benardrick McKinney in the right B gap, and had both of those guys get up the field. Clowney came inside on the snap of the football all the way to the left A gap. The Raiders tried to run Murray up the middle and he never saw Clowney coming.
It had shades of the play Clowney made against Michigan in the bowl game, except that Murray — at 6'3, 230 pounds — took the big hit much better than that Michigan running back did. At the same time the force of the blow knocked Murray back a few yards into the backfield where both Smith and Mercilus were able to clean up and take him down for a tackle for loss.
Now Clowney's name won't appear on the stat sheet for that play, but there is no doubt that he caused that tackle for a loss on Murray.
On the first play after halftime, the Texans decided to move Clowney around a bit before the snap. Then when the ball was snapped, Clowney took off like a bat out of hell and blitzed the opposite A gap again. This time the Raiders were trying to run a trap play that direction and Clowney was able to blow up Osemele, who was pulling for a kick out block. By knocking Osemele into the backfield, he forced Murray to cut back almost immediately after taking the hand off and — Wouldn't you know it? — Texans linebacker Brian Cushing was right there to take him down for a loss of two yards.
Again, Clowney may not have gotten credit, but he for damn sure created that tackle for a loss opportunity.
On the next play Clowney was able to show off his evolution as a pass rusher. On the snap, Clowney started what appeared to be a regular bull rush on Watson, but then he came inside for a step or two which forced Watson to set hard inside so he wouldn't get beat. Unfortunately for him, Clowney quickly stuck his foot in the ground so he could go back outside. At the same time, he sort of hip-tossed Watson into the air and onto his face.
Strong. As. A. Damn. Ox.
Clowney came off the move and knocked the shit out of Cook. The play wouldn't count as another pressure because Houston corner back Kareem Jackson was flagged for illegal contact, but you can bet your ass that Cook remembered that hit for the rest of the game.
I guess the Raiders finally tired of seeing Clowney accosting their quarterback, so they decided to put an extra offensive lineman, Denver Kirkland, into the game to help Watson. That move showed how much respect they had for Clowney at that point, but evidently they forgot that Mercilus is also one hell of a pass rusher. With Kirkland helping on Clowney, the Raiders left Mercilus one-on-one with right tackle Austin Howard.
A Mercilus sack later, and I would bet they were rethinking that strategy. The fact that the Raiders were so intent on stopping Clowney that they sacrificed an eligible receiver and left Mercilus one on one with their backup right tackle was another impact that Clowney had on the game.
OK so look — the play near the end of the third quarter where Clowney basically runs step for step with Amari Cooper on an end around didn't actually count for anything, but just watching a dude Clowney's size move that damn fast is fucking amazing. The more he continues to improve his technique, the more that dude is going to give folks nightmares for years to come.
Now for just about the rest of the game the Raiders kept trying to help Watson block Clowney with extra blockers or chippers, but every once in a while Watson still had to block him one-on-one. Those plays didn't tend to work out to well for them.
On second-and-10 with 11:46 left in the game Clowney found himself one-on-one with Watson again, and this time he bull rushed him then transitioned to a rip outside. Clowney ended up hitting Cook just after he completed a short pass to running back DeAndre Washington for all of three yards. You could tell that at that point Cook was starting to look for Clowney rather than calmly going through his progressions.
Clowney was almost able to get Cook down for a sack with just under five minutes left in the game. This time, he decided to go with a little finesse move after all those bull rushes. Clowney feinted inside to get Watson to bite, then swatted Watson's hands and went back outside for an edge rush. Had he finished that pass rush with a rip I think he would've been able to turn the corner tight enough to take down Cook. Instead, Clowney got a little lazy with his hands at the end of the rush and he drifted upfield enough that Cook was able to shake off his arm tackle attempt. The fact that Clowney was on him so quickly had Cook playing hot potato with the football, however, and he ended up throwing the ball into the turf.
It counts as a pressure, but once Clowney's technique gets just a hair better and more consistent those kinds of pressures are going to be sacks more often than not.
So yeah maybe Clowney's game didn't look all that impressive on the stat sheet, but his film was fucking outstanding.
After seeing what he can do on the edge full time at outside linebacker, I have a feeling the Texans won't be moving him back to defensive end any time soon. Who knew that the development of two rookies and an injury would allow Clowney to unleash the beast in the second half of this season?
Clowney earned his Pro Bowl nod this year and is now playing the best football of his career by far. His performance was enough to earn him my Hoss Of The Week award for the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
New England best be ready for that young man ...