All-22 Analysis  

 

J.J. Watt might not win MVP award, but he is NFL's best player

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The NFL MVP award will likely go to Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning, given the quarterback-centricity of today's NFL, but the best player in the league is J.J. Watt -- and it's not even close.

The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year is putting together an epic campaign that will go down as one of the best single-season performances in NFL history. Through 13 games, Watt has registered 58 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 41 QB hits, five fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and an interception. He also has scored five total touchdowns (interception return, fumble return and three receiving scores), proving he's capable of impacting the game on either side of the ball.

Given some time to pore over the All-22 Coaches Film in search of the secrets to Watt's dominance, I've come up with three reasons behind the perennial Pro Bowler's emergence as the league's premier player:

1) Watt is the most disruptive defender in the NFL.

It only takes a quick glance at the stat sheet to see Watt's impact on the game, but it is the steady stream of disruptive plays that appear on tape that sets him apart from his peers. Watt is not only a freakish athlete with the length and quickness to overwhelm opponents at the line, but he is a high-motor player with a relentless spirit that is unrivaled in today's game. From snap to whistle, Watt plays like a bull in a china shop, pursuing quarterbacks and runners in the backfield. He exhibits exceptional snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness while also displaying tremendous closing acceleration and burst. In addition, Watt possesses impressive instincts and intuition, resulting in a number of splash plays produced off improvised attacks.

As a run defender, Watt's combination of skills makes him nearly impossible to block when he's aligned at his customary 5-technique position (outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) and instructed to angle inside or at the snap. Watt routinely explodes off the ball before the blocker is out of his stance, allowing him to slip through cracks and deliver big hits on runners. Additionally, Watt will use a quick arm-over move to work past blockers at the point of attack and immediately pressure ball carriers. He complements his finesse moves with a handful of power maneuvers (butt-and-jerk and bull rush) that allow him to blow through blockers.

In the play depicted below, taken from the Texans' win at Jacksonville this past Sunday, Watt is aligned as a 5-technique defensive end opposite Jaguars RT Sam Young. Watt attacks Young's inside shoulder with his hands and works to shoot through the crack to corral running back Denard Robinson in the backfield. Watt's remarkable combination of size, strength and instincts helps him register a tackle for loss without schematic assistance (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

Against the pass, Watt is an absolute force of nature. He consistently overwhelms blockers at the line of scrimmage and doggedly pursues quarterbacks on inside or outside rushes. Most importantly, Watt is a finisher when it comes to getting the quarterback to the ground. Watt ranks third in the NFL with 14.5 sacks, which is remarkable for a 3-4 DE -- but even that doesn't tell the whole story. His extraordinary number of QB hits and passes defensed explains why quarterbacks are constantly distracted by No. 99's presence along the line. He simply changes the way quarterbacks approach the passing game from the pocket; the Texans' pass defense benefits greatly from Watt's all-around ability to terrorize opposing signal-callers.

In the following play, Watt is positioned at RDE, with Houston anticipating a run, due to down and distance. He flies down the line on the run fake, but once he diagnoses the play-action pass, Watt peels back to chase after Jags QB Blake Bortles. Watt's unable to get to Bortles prior to the throw, but he uses his length and jumping ability to harass the young quarterback into making an errant pass that falls harmlessly incomplete (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

In this next play, Watt is aligned opposite Young again as an LDE. Watt explodes off the ball and uses a quick arm-over to get into the backfield. He pursues down the line anticipating a run, but quickly re-directs and closes on Bortles after sniffing out the play-action pass. Watt's instincts, awareness and athleticism lead to another sack for the Texans (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

Let's examine one last play from that Jags game. In the diagram below, Watt is positioned at RDE in the Texans' sub-package. He explodes off the snap, executing a speed rush against a roll-out. Despite the fact that Bortles is rolling away from him, Watt's burst prevents the quarterback from escaping his clutches, and the result is another sack (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

Given the importance of disrupting the game at the point of attack, Watt's ability to wreak havoc in all aspects makes him the NFL's most feared defender.

2) Watt has freedom to make plays from anywhere along the line.

With 51 career sacks, 36 passes defensed, 11 forced fumbles and 11 fumble recoveries over just 61 games, the fourth-year pro is clearly a playmaker. And Watt's versatility/position flexibility allows defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to put him at a variety of spots, taking advantage of any liability along the opposing O-line.

Reviewing last Sunday's performance against Jacksonville, I was impressed at how Watt routinely flipped sides or moved inside in various packages. The Texans' willingness to allow Watt to constantly switch spots prevents opponents from sliding pass protection consistently in his direction, creating indecision in the mind of the play caller. This constant shuffling makes the Texans' defense impossible to prepare for prior to game day. For instance, Watt is listed as a right defensive end on the Texans' depth chart, but he plays at left defensive end on 60 to 65 percent of the team's snaps. He also aligns at nose tackle, defensive tackle and even at outside linebacker in a few select packages.

Remember, Crennel is certainly familiar with granting freedom to a dominant playmaker, having spent time tutoring Lawrence Taylor, the NFL's last defensive player to win the MVP award (in 1986).

3) Watt has emerged as a dynamic two-way playmaker.

It's no surprise that most players in the NFL were two-way stars in high school. Although a handful of guys worked on both sides as collegians, it is uncommon for NFL players -- especially elite ones -- to do so. Watt has emerged as the rare exception to the rule, as an extra pass catcher in the Texans' jumbo sets. The 6-foot-5, 289-pounder was originally recruited to Central Michigan as a tight end. (Of course, he eventually transferred to Wisconsin and walked on to the team as a defensive lineman.) He's always possessed the athletic ability to make plays on offense, based on his impressive numbers at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, but it is hard for some coaches to craft a plan to incorporate a valuable defender into an offensive attack.

Bill O'Brien, however, has experience using defenders on offense. During O'Brien's time in New England, Mike Vrabel (currently a defensive assistant coach for the Texans) thrived as a tight end in goal-line sets. O'Brien clearly isn't afraid to utilize a defender as a two-way specialist in key situations. Watt has excelled in limited offensive opportunities for the Texans in 2014. Although he has just three receptions for 4 yards, Watt has scored three touchdowns and been spectacular as a red-zone threat. He has overwhelmed linebackers with his imposing size and athleticism while displaying outstanding ball skills and hands as a receiver.

In the play diagrammed below, taken from Houston's Week 11 win over Cleveland, Watt is aligned out wide in the Texans' goal-line set. He will run a fade against Browns LB Chris Kirksey to the back corner of the end zone. Watt gets a clean release at the line and uses a subtle pushoff to create separation from Kirksey with the ball in the air. He shows outstanding agility and body control in cradling the ball while staying inbounds for a score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

And in the last play we'll look at, taken from the Texans' Week 13 win over Tennessee, Watt aligns at fullback before motioning outside to run a flat route. He uses an inadvertent pick by the receiver to shake free from coverage on the way to the flat. Watt runs away from the defender and makes a diving grab to secure a well-placed pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

The days of the two-way player are long gone in the NFL, but occasionally, a guy comes along who is capable of making significant contributions on both sides of the ball. Watt has already proven his supremacy as a defender; now he is starting to show the football world that he has a chance to be a feared offensive weapon, too.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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