JJ Watt: Sacks, Swim Moves and Double Teams

No, that’s not an NFL offensive line in front of JJ Watt, although he did often make his opponents look about as intimidating.

After outlining JJ Watt and Von Miller as the two premiere players from one of the most talented draft classes in recent memory, before detailing Miller’s season last year, it’s only natural that Watt is the second player to be subjected to the criteria of this series.

It seems unfathomable now, but Watt fell all the way to the 11th overall pick of the 2011 draft. Admittedly, six Pro Bowlers were taken ahead of him and four of those teams have reached the playoffs since that time, while the other two got their franchise quarterback and one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Even with that in mind, it’s difficult to think that a do-over of that draft wouldn’t see Watt as the first player taken.

The now 24-year-old was fortunate to land in the perfect spot, with Wade Philips as his defensive coordinator in a revamped, but very talented defense as a whole. After playing tight end at Central Michigan, before transferring to Wisconsin to initially be a pizza delivery-boy before playing defensive end for two seasons, Watt was probably just happy to get a place in the league.

His rookie season wasn’t reflective of that, despite just getting 5.5 sacks during the regular season, he played very well for a rookie in a defense that was enduring transition at every level. The defining moment of Watt’s rookie season came in the playoffs though, when he returned an interception for a touchdown. Watt’s post-season amounted to 14 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one interception and a touchdown in just two games. If he was a baseball player, he’d have been a single away from hitting the cycle in the post-season.

Watt’s post-season wasn’t special because the Texans reached the playoffs for the first time in their history or because they made any real waves in the AFC side of the bracket, but rather because it was indicative of what was to come in his following season. Watt carried over his post-season play into his off-season, before elevating it ahead of the regular season.

For more than a decade, the sack leader during the regular season was reserved for 4-3 defensive ends or 3-4 outside linebackers. Not only did Watt correct that trend by leading the league in sacks from a 4-3 defensive tackle and 3-4 defensive end position, his 20.5 sacks were just two off of the all-time record held by Michael Strahan. Watt’s sack total was the sixth best of any player through history and the most for any player of his age.

Maybe even more impressive, is the fact that Watt got to the quarterback 24 times, but was forced to give up half sacks so that his official number is lower. The idea that an interior defensive lineman can be as productive as Watt was this past season is simply fascinating, in order to figure it out, we have to go back and look at every successful play he made.

Layout of the Process

Every sack was considered and examined under this set of criteria:

  • Where and how the defender lined up.
  • Whether the player beat a blocker or not.
  • The quality and position of those blockers was also noted.
  • Whether the player was double-teamed or not.
  • Whether the player was involved in a stunt with a teammate or not and the effects of that stunt.
  • The primary reason for the sack.
  • The game situation ie: time, quarter, score, down and distance.
  • How the player beat attempted blocks.
  • Whether the player attacked the football or settled for the tackle on the quarterback’s body.
  • How long it took the player to get to the quarterback.
  • How many yards each sack pushed the offense back by.
  • Where the player broke into the backfield.
  • Where the player tackled the quarterback.

Watt’s Overall Results

Watt led the Texans’ defensive linemen in snaps last season, as he was in on 150 more plays than second-placed Antonio Smith. Six hundred and eighty-seven of Watt’s 1,071 snaps saw him rush the passer, getting to the quarterback 24 times for a sack percentage of 3.5 percent or close to one sack per every 20 attempts.

For every single one of his sacks, Watt lined up in the stance of a defensive lineman(with his hand on the ground). However, he flipped between different spots on the field in different formations. Thirteen of his sacks came as part of a 4-3 front, with 10 coming from a 3-4 front and one from a two man defensive line. Twelve of his thirteen sacks in a 4-3 front came when he lined up as a left defensive tackle, while the other came as a left defensive end. Of his 10 sacks that came out of a 3-4 defense, Watt lined up as a left defensive end on eight plays and as a right defensive end on the other two. For his sole sack on a two-man line, he started on the left side.

Four of his sacks came against double teams, while he didn’t beat a blocker for four others. Seventeen of his 24 sacks came when the Texans were playing with a lead. He had most of his sacks in fourth quarters, eight, but he had six in the first and second quarters of games and four in third quarters. Nineteen times Watt tackled the quarterback while he was still in the pocket, but he also tracked down Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck and Christian Ponder after they left the pocket.

Lining up primarily on the left side pitched him against right tackles and right guards most often, but he got past them in a variety of ways. Four times he came through on the outside shoulder of the right tackle, twice more on the inside shoulder of the right tackle. Six times he got outside the right guard and he got inside the right guard the same number of times. Once he went through the left guard, but he also came free outside and inside the position two times each.

Maybe surprisingly, half of his sacks, 12, came on first and 10, while six came on third down. Only three times did he sack a quarterback on second down, with one sack coming on fourth down. Twenty of his sacks came when the line of scrimmage was more than six yards away from the first down marker.

 

Method Analysis

This chart represents what moves Watt used to beat which players and how often he used them.

Timestamp

Beaten Offensive Linemen

Speed Rush

Bull Rush

Bull to set up Speed Rush

Other Specific Move

MIA, Q3 05:56

Jonathan Martin,

Reggie Bush

No

No

No

Swim

JAX, Q2 14:28

Guy Whimper

Yes

No

No

Swim

JAX, Q4 14:12

Uche Nwaneri

No

No

No

Swim

DEN, Q1 03:15

Manuel Ramirez

No

No

No

Swim

DEN, Q2 00:34

None

No

No

No

No

DEN, Q4 05:39

Manuel Ramirez

No

No

No

Swim

TEN, Q2 02:53

Leroy Harris

No

No

No

Swim

TEN, Q3 01:16

Leroy Harris

No

No

No

Swim

NYJ, Q4 07:04

Brandon Moore

No

No

No

Swim

GB, Q1 08:25

None

No

No

No

No

GB, Q3 09:59

TJ Lang

No

No

No

Swim

BUF, Q2 00:16

Kraig Urbik

No

Yes

No

No

JAX, Q4 13:55

Eugene Monroe

Yes

No

No

No

DET, Q1 15:00

Stephen Peterman

No

No

Yes

No

DET, Q4 10:43

Gosder Cherilus

No

Yes

No

No

DET, Q4 08:19

None

No

No

No

No

TEN, Q2 06:39

David Stewart, Craig Stevans

No

Yes

No

No

TEN, Q4 10:42

Deuce Lutui, Fernando Velasco

No

No

No

Swim

IND, Q1 00:51

Jeff Linkenbach,

Vick Ballard

No

No

No

Swim, Swim

IND, Q2 02:54

Mike McGlynn

No

Yes

No

No

IND, Q4 06:50

Mike McGlynn

No

No

No

Swim

MIN, Q3 09:44

None

No

No

No

No

CIN, Q1 05:57

Kyle Cook

Yes

No

No

No

NE, Q1 07:26

Sebastien Vollmer

Yes

No

No

No

Totals:

24

4

4

1

13

It’s not completely inaccurate to suggest that JJ Watt is somewhat of a one-trick pony, but when it’s a bit like saying Calvin Johnson is a one trick pony. It’s one trick that you simply cannot stop. On 12 of Watt’s 24 completed trips to the quarterback, he used 13 swim moves to get past potential blockers. The swim move is a standard pass-rushing technique(1:42 on video).

If you’ve watched enough football, you will undoubtedly have heard the commentator at some point talk about how well a defensive lineman used his hands to get a sack. The swim move is all about using your hands at the perfect time to get past the blocker. To understand the value of the swim move, you must first understand what is important for an offensive lineman.

Throughout the draft process, the three things that are most talked about with offensive linemen are the speed of their feet, the length of their arms and their overall strength. These three aspects of being a pass protector work together. Being a pass protector is all about being a moving wall, being big and strong is important, but it’s worthless if you cannot keep your base beneath you.

In order to keep your base beneath you, you need quick feet and in order to make best use of your strength, you must be able to concentrate it through your arms. You cannot grasp an opponent with your hands, but you can punch and push them away from the quarterback while it’s keeping them away from your core makes it easier for you to keep your balance.

Having longer arms than your opponent allows you to initiate contact. Having more strength allows you to contain the defender. Without your base beneath you, you can’t get the full effects of your strength, so having quick feet is also imperative to positive play.

The swim move is what defensive linemen use to counter an offensive lineman who tries to engage his hands on him. On this play, Watt actually uses it twice before he gets to the quarterback.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 21.36.01

Here Watt is lined up over right tackle Jeff Linkenbach. He is slightly off-set over his outside shoulder, putting him in the perfect position to attack the c-gap(gap between the right tackle and tight end to his side of the field.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 21.36.17

At the start of the play, Watt and Linkenbach engage other for a split second, before Watt starts his swim move. Watt’s timing is incredible when he starts his swim move and is exceptionally quick and powerful with his hands when uses them to beat the defender. His left arm, red line in first section of image above, hits the top of Linkenbach’s shoulder bringing him forward, before he swings his right arm over Linkenbach’s falling frame.

This motion is so named because his movement resembles a standard swimming stroke, but most importantly it creates a clear running lane for him to chase down the quarterback.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 21.38.58

Watt goes through the motions of his swim move against Vick Ballard in the backfield, but his strength alone is enough to allow him to breeze past his block attempt. He frees himself from the block attempt, but doesn’t push Ballard away as he moves towards Luck.

Screen shot 2013-06-17 at 21.39.57

Although Andrew Luck is a very athletic quarterback who looks to escape from him in space, Watt quickly tracks him down and is able to make a form tackle to drag him down just as he leaves the pocket.

Watt’s combination of size, speed, agility and power makes his swim move almost impossible to contain. He has perfected it to the point that he is able to completely rely on it and not be susceptible even if it becomes predictable.

Much like Von Miller did, Watt did routinely beat up on some below-par pass blockers. Of the 21 players Watt beat by my criteria, only 11 finished the season with a positive grade from Pro Football Focus for their pass-blocking, only four had a greater higher than 10.0 and six finished with a rating worse than -8.4. Obviously Watt contributed to those grades and playing on the left side of the defense meant that he wasn’t routinely facing off against the most reputable guards or tackles in the NFL.

Name

Snaps

Sacks Allowed

PFF Grade*

Jonathan Martin

588

6

-17.5

Reggie Bush

64

0

-2.4

Guy Whimper

215

5

-10.2

Uche Nwaneri

609

5

-5.2

Manuel Ramirez

473

6

8.5

Leroy Harris

293

5

-9.3

Brandon Moore

583

2

6.1

TJ Lang

720

9

4.4

Kraig Urbik

450

2

7.6

Eugene Monroe

706

5

12.3

Stephen Peterman

815

5

-8.5

Gosder Cherilus

814

4

21

David Stewart

448

2

13.7

Craig Stevens

65

1

1.7

Deuce Lutui

309

0

-4.1

Fernando Velasco

643

0

5.5

Jeff Linkenbach

533

4

-10.8

Vick Ballard

175

2

.4

Mike McGlynn

814

4

-13.8

Kyle Cook

139

3

-1.9

Sebastien Vollmer

756

7

15.7

Total

10,212

77

13.2

Average

486.3

3.7

.63

*PFF Grade is for pass blocking only
All Statistics courtesy of PFF

During the season, Watt was only prevented from getting to the quarterback on four occasions. The first was against the Baltimore Ravens and Marshal Yanda. Yanda is a superstar right guard and likely played a large role in helping the Ravens hold Watt to just one quarterback hit and one quarterback hurry. Two of his more inexplicable shutouts came against the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts, while the New England Patriots combined excellent blocking with an exceptional gameplan to limit his impact during their regular season meeting.

Watt’s pass-rushing ability is simply phenomenal. A man of his size shouldn’t be able to move the way he does in such tight spaces, while his strength to knock grown men out of his way is comical at times. In order to lead the league in sacks from a defensive tackle/interior defensive end position, you have to be a special player, not just a special athlete. What separates Watt apart from his piers is his physical talent, but also his physical talent combined with his technical ability and awareness.

Much like a good pass-protector needs excellent feet and technique to get the most out of his strength, a good pass-rusher needs to understand how to contort his body, when and how to strike for opportunities as they present themselves, while still being effective and aware enough of everything else the offense is doing to be effective. If it was simply a matter of finding the best athletes, then there would be many many more Jason Pierre-Pauls and Aldon Smiths in the league, while Vernon Gholston would be a perennial All-Pro.

Timestamp

Beaten Offensive Linemen

Attacks Football

Time Elapsed

Yards

MIA, Q3 05:56

Jonathan Martin,

Reggie Bush.

No

3.1

8

JAX, Q2 14:28

Guy Whimper

No

3.7

8

JAX, Q4 14:12

Uche Nwaneri

No

3.3

7

DEN, Q1 03:15

Manuel Ramirez

No

3.2

5

DEN, Q2 00:34

None

No

2.8

3

DEN, Q4 05:39

Manuel Ramirez

No

3.2

6

TEN, Q2 02:53

Leroy Harris

No

2.9

11

TEN, Q3 01:16

Leroy Harris

No

3.2

6

NYJ, Q4 07:04

Brandon Moore

No

3.0

5

GB, Q1 08:25

None

Yes

3.3

6

GB, Q3 09:59

TJ Lang

No

2.1

4

BUF, Q2 00:16

Kraig Urbik

No

2.8

6

JAX, Q4 13:55

Eugene Monroe

No

2.5

6

DET, Q1 15:00

Stephen Peterman

No

2.4

7

DET, Q4 10:43

Gosder Cherilus

No

3.0

8

DET, Q4 08:19

None

No

4.0

7

TEN, Q2 06:39

David Stewart, Craig Stevans

No

3.7

6

TEN, Q4 10:42

Deuce Lutui, Fernando Velasco

No

3.7

12

IND, Q1 00:51

Jeff Linkenbach,

Vick Ballard

No

3.7

15

IND, Q2 02:54

Mike McGlynn

No

2.6

3

IND, Q4 06:50

Mike McGlynn

No

3.4

4

MIN, Q3 09:44

None

Yes

4.0

6

CIN, Q1 05:57

Kyle Cook

No

2.9

9

NE, Q1 07:26

Sebastien Vollmer

Yes

3.3

9

Totals:

24

3

75.8

167

Averages:

1

.125

3.16

6.96

Although he didn’t beat a block on every single sack that he recorded during the 2012 season, Watt did beat the same number of blockers as sacks that he managed. He only looked to force a fumble three times in those 24 attempts, but that number isn’t really fair to him because unlike an edge-rusher, more often than not the quarterback would see Watt coming through the middle and look to protect himself and the football. This made going for the fumble a pointless task.

In comparison to Miller, Watt was faster to the quarterback on average. However, when you remove Miller’s two sacks that came from non-pass rushing assignments, he was significantly quicker. This is no surprise because Miller’s greatest strength is his speed while Watt is much bigger, without ever getting clear runs to the quarterback. When Watt didn’t beat blocks for his sacks, it wasn’t because he ran free from the snap, it was because he never got past the player trying to block him and instead reacted when the quarterback left the pocket running past him.

There is no statistic that points to JJ Watt being overrated. In fact, when considering the context of his play, it’s possible that he may even be underrated. Watt’s value to any defense as a dominant run-defender, pivotal pass-rusher and an entrepreneurial pass-deflector can’t be understated. The really scary thing about him is his potential.

While it’s always ridiculous to say that a young player can only improve, Watt looks more likely to get better as his career goes on rather than worse. He doesn’t have any negative traits on the field and his reputation off of it is nothing short of exemplary. If anything is to deflect his career path away from Canton, it will need to be very dramatic.

 Individual Play Analysis

The two plays I want to look at for Watt come from the same game and face somewhat similar situations. Much is made of Watt’s ability to handle double teams, I don’t doubt that ability, but not many of his sacks came against double teams. Here are two that did, two plays that he made that I doubt there are 20 players in the league who can.

Both sacks came against the Tennessee Titans and this first one shows off his physical superiority.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 00.30.38

Watt is lined up in a 3-4 front with four offensive linemen to his side of the center. There is an outside linebacker lined up well outside the outside shoulder of the furthest tight end to the right of the offense, but that linebacker will drop into coverage at the snap. Watt’s position puts him directly over David Stewart, the Titans’ right tackle, with arguably the best blocking tight end in the NFL to his right, Craig Stevens.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 00.30.48

Critically, Watt isn’t double teamed at the snap. Stewart takes an inside position and engages the defensive lineman, but Stevens’ assignment is for the outside linebacker who has dropped into coverage. Therefore, at this point, he is not even looking at Watt. The play-action from Jake Locker to Chris Johnson forces the Texan to hesitate for a split-second, but it doesn’t really slow him as he moves downfield.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 00.31.09

Stevens quickly recognises the situation and is in an excellent recovery position to sidestep into the path of Watt and support Stewart as they try to prevent him from getting to the quarterback. This should be a victory for the offensive line, but Watt saw Stevens coming and reacted too quickly. By the time Stevens shuffled his feet inside, Watt had already focused in on Stewart and driven him back towards the quarterback so that Stevens is behind him and essentially out of the play.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 00.31.58

Once Stevens recognises that he is beaten, he looks to shove Watt to the ground from behind, latching onto him with his arms and throwing his whole weight into the defender(evident by his feet being off the ground. Watt’s body shape says that he should fall over. His feet are too close together and from his knees upwards his body is teetering over.

However, with his physical upper body strength, Watt endures Stevens’ attempt to knock him over while still holding off Stewart, before planting his foot in the ground to reroute himself back towards the quarterback.

Watt’s quick recognition, his power and acceleration combined with his balance and strength allowed him to take down the quarterback when most players wouldn’t have beaten the initial double team attempt. It’s simply a phenomenal play that shows off why he is a special player.

An understated aspect of Watt’s play is his intelligence and quick recognition. Watt diagnoses plays and the best way to beat blocks very quickly.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 00.34.23

In the redzone with 10 minutes left in the game, the Titans were down by two touchdowns. It was fourth and 4, so the Titans needed this play to keep their hopes of winning the game alive. Watt was lined up in a similar position to the last play, but this time he was facing a double team from two offensive linemen, a right guard and right tackle, instead of a right tackle and a tight end.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 00.34.31

Importantly, unlike the last play, this time both blockers are responsible for Watt from the get-go. Both players immediately look to get position on the defensive end, while the Titans roll the pocket to the right-hand-side of the field. Why anyone would want to roll the pocket to Watt’s side of the field when they absolutely need a play makes no sense to me, regardless of the quarterback’s comfort going in that direction, but who am I to judge…I’ll let the result do that.

Just like he did on the previous play, when Watt recognises the double team, he focuses solely on beating one defender. He engages right guard Deuce Lutui and trusts in his strength to withstand the hit from center Fernando Velasco.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 00.34.42

Watt is able to do that, but the hit never really comes from Velasco because Watt is so quick moving laterally and puts a very fast(and very effective) swim move on Lutui. Lutui is beaten easily, while the double team on the outside linebacker to Watt’s left means that there is huge space for him to run through. Because of Lutui’s presence and Velasco’s lesser athleticism, the center has no chance to get outside of him and cut him off before he finds his way to the quarterback.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 00.35.03

When Locker sees Watt coming, he tries to reverse the field but falls down as he looks to spin around. This allows Watt to spring on him for the sack and forced fumble. Although, whether he was the one that forced the fumble or not is another story altogether.

Verdict

The only question marks I have about JJ Watt are about his past. How did he ever think he was going to be a tight-end? How did he somehow find his way to playing tight end rather than defensive end? What college coach allowed him to transfer without working to accommodate his freakish athleticism and talent? Of course, criticising anyone for missing out on Watt wouldn’t really be fair, because it would be done with the benefit of hindsight, but his level of play on the field is of such a standard that it’s impossible to imagine that it could somehow be masked.

Watt is going to follow in the footsteps of guys like Bruce Smith, Haloti Ngata, Justin Smith, Aaron Smith, Richard Seymour and many more who have excelled as 3-4 defensive ends, but the real question is if he can surpass them all and really revolutionise the position. Bruce Smith finished his career with 200 sacks, but he never reached the heights that Watt did last season and played for 19 years. Smith averaged 10.5 sacks per season for his career, that is a phenomenal number, but it’s possible in today’s league that Watt could take that average and surpass it by some distance.

Talent shouldn’t be an issue and he has shown no signs of durability issues, although it’s way too early to really judge. Durability and longevity are his greatest obstacles to being remembered as one of the greatest players to ever play this game, that is not something that is said about many players.

It feels like hyperbole to type that about a player who is not only still playing but still in the very early stages of his career, but that is how special a player he proved himself to be last season.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

11 thoughts on “JJ Watt: Sacks, Swim Moves and Double Teams

  1. Pingback: The Brilliance of JJ Watt | Pro Football Hot Reads

  2. Great analysis, but you forgot the part of Watt’s game that set’s him apart: the swatted pass. As a (biased) Texans fan, I got to see J.J. swat a number of balls down. None can be seen better than week 1 against Miami and week 4 against the Titans. If Watt sees that he cannot make it to the QB, he often drops back into a sort of “zone” and reads the QB to the point where he sticks his hands up and goes for the rejection.

    Houston, we have another great shot blocker. Hakeem Olajuwon, watch out because J.J. Watt may be catching you.

      • And a damn fine article it is! Thank you for your brilliant football analysis. I wish you the best and hope to see many more of your articles in the future.

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  5. At some point, it’d be awesome to get a breakdown some of the record holders/greats relevant to the position you’re breaking down. Obviously in this case, Bruce Smith. You just rifled off a good number of CBs, maybe Rod Woodson could be done. Just an idea for future content that I think many would enjoy, it’d be fun to see how current players stack up against the greats.

    Thanks for the great articles.

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