Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

23 Jul 2013

Watt Happens: A Look At Tipped Passes

by Rivers McCown

This section contains charting data gathered from our friends at ESPN Stats and Information

There are many reasons why I thought the Defensive Player of the Year award should have been unanimously handed to J.J. Watt in a cakewalk. There was the obliteration of the Defeats record. There was the fact that he maintained a 98 percent Run Stop Rate and was generally a factor in the run game even when teams ran away from his side of the line.

But one of the driving forces behind his ridiculous year was his ability to tip passes at the line. This earned tacky plaudits like "another swat from Watt" time and time again. After tipping five passes by our count in 2011, ESPN Stats and Information credits Watt with batting down 17 different passes in 2012.

Let's focus on this number: does 17 tipped passes feel insane to you? There's a good reason for that. There were 373 tipped balls during the 2012 season, so almost five percent of all tipped balls in the NFL last year belonged to Watt. Corey Liuget finished second in the league in batted passes. He had eight. To fully put 17 tipped passes in context, that's more than all but two players have gathered in the five years that we've charted tipped passes combined. Only Calais Campbell and Kevin Williams tipped more passes in the last five years than Watt did last year on his own. Take me to the tables!

Tipped Passes, 2012
Name Team Tipped Passes
J.J. Watt HOU 17
Corey Liuget SD 8
John Abraham ATL 7
Calais Campbell ARI 7
Kevin Williams MIN 7
Ryan Kerrigan WAS 6
Brian Robison MIN 6
Connor Barwin HOU 5
Cory Redding IND 5

Tipped Passes, 2008-2012
Name Teams Tipped Passes
Kevin Williams MIN 28
J.J. Watt HOU 22
Calais Campbell ARI 20
Justin Tuck NYG 17
Jason Pierre-Paul NYG 17
Julius Peppers CAR/CHI 16
Haloti Ngata BAL 16
Shaun Phillips SD 16
Barry Cofield NYG/WAS 15
Jason Taylor MIA/NYJ/WAS 15
Michael Johnson CIN 14
Name Teams Tipped Passes
Brett Kiesel PIT 14
Marcus Stroud BUF 14
Terrell Suggs BAL 13
Jason Jones TEN/SEA 13
Fred Robbins NYG/STL 13
John Abraham ATL 12
Jared Allen MIN 12
Vince Wilfork NE 12
Connor Barwin HOU 12
Israel Idonije CHI 11
Chris Clemons PHI/SEA 11
Name Teams Tipped Passes
Richard Seymour OAK/NE 11
Charles Johnson CAR 11
Justin Bannan BAL/DEN/STL 11
Chris Canty DAL/NYG 11
Brian Urlacher CHI 10
Ray Lewis BAL 10
Ahmad Brooks SF 10
Kendall Langford MIA/STL 10
Tommy Kelly OAK 10
Jonathan Babineaux ATL 10
Johnny Jolly GB 10
Sedrick Ellis NO 10

Interesting mix of players here, and not quite what you'd expect. There are some sack masters, sure, but there are also a lot of guys I envisioned purely as run stuffers. Remember the Williams Wall? Turns out it has flying. For those of you that are curious: DeMarcus Ware had three tipped passes. Cameron Wake had one. This appears to be a skill that you either have (or focus on) or you don't.

You may be familiar with a concept that we've mentioned a time or a million called "regression to the mean." This was one of those seasons that, historically speaking, isn't even remotely repeatable. What's more, five of those 17 passes were intercepted by other Houston defenders. How unlikely was that? Of the 1883 tipped passes that we have charted since 2008, only 111, or roughly 5.9 percent, were intercepted. Unless you think Watt has some kind of magical witchcraft that makes his team roughly 24 percent more likely to catch the football when he tips it, that's one portion of the Houston defense you can file under "unsustainable."

It's fair to say that Watt's season was a historical outlier that has a small chance of being repeated. My question becomes: what is a normal J.J. Watt season? We don't exactly have a lot of data to go on. Do you cut his production in half and say he winds up near the league leaders again? Do you believe that he'll regress down closer to the five tips he had in his rookie year? Or, is he just some kind of superhuman who, along the lines of Adrian Peterson, is meant to defy regression at every turn?

Tom Gower spent a lot of time in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013's Texans chapter (available now!) talking about how Watt's 2013 season was hard to forecast. How close he can come to an encore of 2012 will answer a lot of questions about where the Texans are going this year.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 23 Jul 2013

31 comments, Last at 26 Jul 2013, 4:33pm by Vince Verhei

Comments

1
by the hooded genius (not verified) :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 12:38pm

I'll be the first to admit that I got the Williams wall flying joke. I had to do something when grounded.

19
by Jason McKean (not verified) :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 1:33pm

Any football website that makes a joke using a "Magic: The Gathering" reference has my vote. Amazing.

2
by slipknottin :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 1:45pm

Perhaps there is a correlation between type of pass rusher and batted balls? The pure speed guys seem to not show up on the lists, while the guys who have more power and play inside have higher numbers.

Perhaps angle to the QB is relevant?

6
by corrections (not verified) :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 4:52pm

A nice theory except Demarcus Ware doesn't tip that many passes so it can't just be a speed verses power thing

11
by Theo :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 7:18pm

that's an awful quick conclusion to exclude the entire group when one exception happens.

16
by justme_cd :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 12:21pm

Of course it's not only a speed vs. power thing - there would be other factors. Like this: "Perhaps angle to the QB is relevant?"

Ware almost always goes around the edge (with responsibility to set the edge in case of a run) and is in very few passing lanes as design.

3
by Travis :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 2:05pm

The only other defensive end I can think of who was known for tipping passes was Ed "Too Tall" Jones, who reportedly batted down 14 passes in 1988 (most of which are documented in the play-by-play), and 73 in the nine years before that.

(Here's video of his 10th and 11th blocks of 1983, from a Week 11 game against the Chargers.)

4
by Mehllageman56 (not verified) :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 2:56pm

I would think tipped passes has a connection with height and wingspan. Interior rushers probably have a better chance of tipping passes as well, since any rusher taking an outside/edge route to the quarterback will be out of most passing lanes.

5
by Matt Bowyer :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 4:04pm

I'm glad to see Ryan Kerrigan on this list for 2012. I remember his tipped pass that he caught himself and returned for a TD his rookie year, which I'm sure is a ton of luck, but I felt like I saw him knock down more than a few passes this past season too.

7
by justanothersteve :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 5:13pm

I don't know if they used the same source, but Acme Packing has Johnny Jolly tipping 10 passes in 2009 alone. As he's been out of the league for three years (for tipping the purple drank), I don't even know if he'll make the team this year. But there are good reasons why Packers fans think he has a better-than-average chance of being on the roster come 8 September.

24
by Jimmy :: Thu, 07/25/2013 - 10:20am

This Bears fan thinks Jolly is a very good player in the Pack's scheme. With Jolly and Datone Jones the Pac might finally have guys to rotate with Pickett and Raji.

27
by DisplacedPackerFan :: Thu, 07/25/2013 - 12:05pm

There is still a huge IF. Jolly was pretty good, we have no idea what Jolly is now after three years out of football, and there really aren't any past examples of players in that situation to use to even attempt a prediction.

Of course if he does work, it might only be for a year. Raji, Picket, CJ Wilson, and Jolly will all be free agents at the end of the season (as will Mike Neal). So the line may end up being a combo of Datone Jones, Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy, Josh Boyd and a 2014 draft pick (or two) after this season. Of course all of those guys are also reasons that Jolly may not make the team as well, even if he can swat passes at half the rate of JJ Watt.

8
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 5:26pm

"Only Calais Campbell and Kevin Williams tipped more passes in the last five years than Watt did last year on his own."

That line sounds better before you realize Williams has tipped more passes than Watt has.

9
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 5:41pm

Yes, Williams has tipped more passes in 5 years than Watt has in 2 years. Williams: 5.6 tipped passes per year. Watt: 11 tipped passes per year. So I'd say it still sounds pretty good.

17
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 12:26pm

Williams tipped passes at a higher rate early in his career. His current stretch looks pretty good if you remove his 2-tip outlier in 2011.

Jason Taylor had a stretch of 3 consecutive 10+ tipped-pass years in mid-career. In fact, he's the only lineman with three tens in a career.

10
by adam w (not verified) :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 5:43pm

I think the point was more that Watt has only played for two years...

14
by RickD :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 1:24am

We understand the point. It's a weird point.

You know, Tom Brady has more career yards rushing than RG3.

(Actually, he doesn't. But it's close.)

25
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Thu, 07/25/2013 - 10:49am

Why is it weird? Not worded that great, I'll give you that, but people use those kind of comparisons all the time.

To use your example, with better wording it would be "RG3 has more career yards rushing than Tom Brady has in his entire career."

Better wording for this example would be "Watt has more tipped passes than anyone in the league in the two years he's played. For that matter, he has more tipped passes in his two years than all but two players have had in their last five."

12
by Theo :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 7:30pm

Yes and Chad Henne beats Cam Newton in Passing Yards and Pass Touchdowns.

Sorry for piling up, I just wanted to check this out.

13
by Thok :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 12:44am

It's plausible that tipping passes is the football equivalent of getting hit by a pitch: almost nobody has that skill, but the few who are actually good at it are consistently good at it.

Frankly, I'd just predict Watt will tip some nontrivial number of passes (13? 17? 23?) and take it for granted you've gotten the exact number wrong.

15
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 10:26am

There is some evidence that implies that drawing pass-interference penalties is a similar type of skill- rare but real. I remember reading a few years ago on this very website that Donald Driver (I think) was consistently among the league leaders in PI drawn. Forcing fumbles may be another one. (Edit: Forced fumbles by non-pass-rushers, I should say. Obviously pass rushers tend to force fumbles in the course of hitting QBs. But I'm talking about guys like Charles Tillman, Brian Dawkins, Greg Lloyd, and maybe Charles Woodson.)

21
by Jerry :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 6:13pm

Greg Lloyd? He was a ROLB who rushed the passer a lot.

22
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 7:00pm

Yeah Lloyd is probably not the best example, although his ratio of forced fumbles to sacks is crazy high.

18
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 12:27pm

The difficulty is that it could go either way.

Greg Hardy's career goes 1-11-2 in tipped passes.

20
by CK (not verified) :: Wed, 07/24/2013 - 2:41pm

"Roughly 24% more likely". Take another look - that's not how percentages and ratios work and this mistake far undersells the unlikelihood of this happening again. It's actually pretty easy to believe that something could happen for a second year in a row at a rate 24% above league average, but in fact the Texan's interception rate on Watt's deflections is much much higher than that. So here is the remedial math:

JJ Watt's teammates intercepted 29.4% of passes that he tipped. If this percentage were applied to the 5 year total of 1883 actual tipped passes, that would have resulted in about 554 tipped pass interceptions. The real total was 111 tipped pass interceptions and 554 is 499% of 111. So the rate at which Watt's team turned his tipped passes into picks was 499% higher than expected, not 24% higher. But at least you are right that it's not likely to happen again.

23
by nweb (not verified) :: Thu, 07/25/2013 - 9:53am

Buck Buchanan tipped 16 in 67, but iirc may have had only one other season in double digits. Between Buck, Too Tall, Calais Campbell, Watt, Kevin Williams, etc the commonality seems to be an interior lineman and wingspan. Ok, Campbell and Jones were DEs but Calais on a 3 man line, not aligned wide, and Too Tall was 6-9. I do think this is like non sack FFs and blocked kicks. In the vast majority of cases its random, but there are a handful of skilled practitioners, the aforementioned Tillman for FFs and Sean Rogers or Alan Page with blocked kicks.

26
by Dan in Philly (not verified) :: Thu, 07/25/2013 - 11:15am

Any study on the effect of those tipped passes? Do we have a large enough database to study how likely a tipped pass in general is to be intercepted? How much does a tipped pass reduce the likelihood of a successful play be the ofense, given that the pass is short and therefore high percentage if it's being tipped at all? Is this possibly an area where we will see an explosion in the coming years as more DL coaches teach it, assuming it's been undervalued?

28
by Vince Verhei :: Fri, 07/26/2013 - 2:38am

How much does a tipped pass reduce the likelihood of a successful play be the ofense, given that the pass is short and therefore high percentage if it's being tipped at all?

How on earth can you propose to guess the distance of the pass a quarterback was attempting if a defensive lineman tips it?

30
by Dan in Philly (not verified) :: Fri, 07/26/2013 - 10:51am

Physics. Based on the idea that the farther a throw is going, the higher the QB has to throw the ball, and the less likely the DL is to tip it. I suupose that a game charter could chart the likely target for each tipped ball, and I suspect that if tipped balls become more and more a part of the game, they will.

31
by Vince Verhei :: Fri, 07/26/2013 - 4:33pm

There are so many reasons that wouldn't work. What if a QB had one receiver at 5 yards, and another behind him at 15? What if a quarterback was throwing high to a short receiver in a (failed) attempt to get the ball over the arms of a pass rusher? What if the rusher is making a bee-line straight for the quarterback, leaps in the air and takes the ball in the middle of his chest? Unless you can personally ask the quarterback who he was throwing to on each tipped pass, this is just not feasible.

29
by Anonymous loser (not verified) :: Fri, 07/26/2013 - 4:19am

I think he is assuming long passes are thrown with more arch, so are less likely to be deflected.