Player Projection: J.J. Watt


Forecasting the performance of 2012 and 2014 NFL Defensive player of the year J.J. Watt should be really simple, right? I should basically just state “20 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 50 tackles for losses” and just all it a day, right?

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Watt’s production from a 3-4 defensive end last season was unprecedented, especially considering that Watt operated under a new philosphy with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel taking over for Wade Phillips. In a traditional 3-4 defense (like Crennel’s scheme) we tend to think of a 3-4 end as a two-gapper, responsible primarily for taking up blockers and freeing the linebackers to make plays. This certainly should have meant that Watt’s production would have declined last season, right? Not so fast.

Typically in a Crennel-style of the 3-4 defense, the emphasis for defensive linemen is on gap control – both creating opportunities for linebackers to rush passers and clogging running lanes  to minimize the impact of the running game. Last season I think that we actually saw more of Crennel adjusting to Watt’s skillsets than Watt did adjusting to Crennel’s defense.

Watt was given the liberty to “stunt” from the defensive end position, which doesn’t require him to intentionally fire off between two defenders as defensive ends typically do in a traditional 3-4 defense. Watt primarily plays in what is called a “5-technique” [defensive end aligned shaded outside the tackle] and also has the flexibility to use the 3-technique [shaded outside a guard]. This makes it difficult for the interior linemen to handle his power and tackles to work against his speed, both huge advantages for him off the snap.

The addition of mammoth nose tackle Vince Wilfork this offseason will make Watt even more effective, however when I use the term effective that is not to be confused with his statistics. I expect to see a slight dip from a numbers perspective, primarily because of opposing offenses using pass protection formations to try to “force” Watt into a more fewer trips to the quarterback’s chest. I do, however expect more “big plays” (if that’s even possible) from Watt, but not necessarily the insanely high sack and TFL (tackle for loss) numbers. When it matters most, you can bet your rent money that number 99 will be the one who makes critical plays that ends drives. This overall defensive unit may not produce as many sacks and turnovers as we all expect them to, but this unit will not be on the field for more than three downs very often.

Why? Well for starters although the entire front 7 for the Texans is certainly capable of creating nightmares for opposing offensive coordinators, let’s not kid ourselves for a second. The Houston front is such a strong group that blocking schemes have difficult choices to make. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing will rush a lot on third down. So offenses will likely tend to move their center toward him. That helps Watt wind up with one-on-ones with a guard, since the tackle has to deal with another very good rusher in Whitney Mercilus.

Watt gets moved around based on what Crennel calls and the matchups the Texans are looking to exploit. But the default is the strong side, which Watt estimates puts him against right tackles and guards 70 percent of the time. Typically teams will put their best tackles on the left side to protect the blind side of the quarterback (if he’s right handed). That’s why this season I expect to see more teams bring out a tight end or even check in a reserve offensive lineman as a tight end to help specifically with blocking and double teaming Watt.

Watt is the new look 5-technique prototype. The NFL wants the 5-technique to have that length in order to keep an offensive tackle away from his body and be able to react in space, but he also needs speed and athleticism that they were never expected to possess in the past. At 6-foot-5, Watt has the length (not just height but arm length) to prevent bigger players getting into his pads, but he has the agility to beat them off the snap as well, penetrating into the backfield much like the 3-technique in a 4-3 defense.

Since Watt also spent a fairly decent amount of time on the other side of the ball, let me very briefly address that by stating that I expect to see even more of Watt in redzone situations, as he has proven that he is a reliable target that must be accounted for.

Toro Times Projection:

16 sacks, 75 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 3 offensive touchdowns. Who knows…perhaps a 100+ quarterback rating too?

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