by Cian Fahey
Winning the Defensive Player of the Year award over the coming seasons is going to be very difficult unless your name is Justin James Watt.
The Houston Texans defensive lineman is enjoying another outstanding season after a year in which he was undeservingly pipped to the award by Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Watt has seven sacks, one forced fumble, one interception, one defensive touchdown, and one offensive touchdown to date. That production has come in spite of the absence of first overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney for much of the season.
While Watt is rightfully the favorite for the award and receiving a lot of attention for his consistently impressive play, he is overshadowing another worthy candidate this season.
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston is currently leading the NFL in sacks. He has taken the quarterback down behind the line of scrimmage on 10 occasions in just seven games. Only once has he been held without a sack, and that game took place in Week 2 against Peyton Manning's Broncos in Denver.
Houston has been a productive pass rusher throughout his career to this point. He has 36.5 sacks in 44 starts since being selected in the third round of the 2011 draft. But even though he had 11 sacks in 11 games last season, Houston's pass-rushing ability is clearly better than it has ever been this year.
This play against San Diego's impressive right tackle D.J. Fluker is typical of what Houston has done on a regular basis this season. He has been able to regularly use his power to overwhelm offensive linemen and either knock them down or push them back into the quarterback at speed. With this power and the fluid athleticism to also deceive blockers in space, Houston has become one of the toughest one-on-one assignments in the NFL.
What makes this more significant is that Houston doesn't have a narrow skill set. The 25-year-old has never been reliant on his ability to get to the quarterback to create his value on the field. In fact, up until this point in his career, Houston was arguably more adept at dropping into coverage and playing the run than he was disrupting clean pockets. That's not to diminish his rushing ability, but rather highlight the quality of his whole skill set.
Now that he is developing into a dominant pass rusher, it's hard to imagine that there is a better outside linebacker in the NFL than Houston.
Like most outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme, Houston is rarely stressed too heavily when he drops into coverage with his assignment. He typically drops into an underneath zone or patrols the flat. The difficulty of his assignment isn't as notable as the effectiveness of his coverage. Houston is very consistent with his positioning and shows off outstanding balance and quickness while also being aware of receivers around him at all times.
On this play from Week 2 against the Broncos, Houston is lined up at left outside linebacker and is going to be responsible for the flat and 6 or 7 yards past the line of scrimmage. Houston has two tight ends to his side of the field. When the furthest outside tight end releases towards the sideline, Houston faces him and attempts to engage him before he gets into his route. When that tight end cuts back infield, the other tight end cuts underneath him to run into the flat. Houston shows off outstanding awareness, footwork, and balance to seamlessly transition from covering the first tight end to covering the second.
As we can see from the end zone angle, Manning wanted to throw the ball to the flat once his curl route down the field wasn't available. Because of Houston's speed through his transition from the first tight end to the second, Manning was forced to hold the ball before checking it down to his running back over the middle of the field -- where there are more defenders to come up and make a tackle short of the first-down marker.
This is a relatively simple play for a defensive back, but one that can consistently confuse linebackers who are asked to drop into coverage. Houston is so adept at this kind of play that he has essentially mastered the craft. He can't have as big of an impact on the game in this role as he does rushing the passer, but it offers defensive coordinator Bob Sutton more flexibility with his play calling and frees him to be very aggressive with his play designs.
As a run defender, Houston shows off all the traits to be successful in different situations.
When the opposition uses misdirection, attempts to read Houston in space, or runs stretch plays away from him towards the other side of the field, Houston has the quickness and discipline to contain the football. On this play against the San Francisco 49ers, Houston is lined up over the slot receiver to start the play. Before the ball is snapped, the offense motions the outside receiver, Anquan Boldin, into a position where he can block Houston for an outside run.
Houston watches Boldin as he moves inside. At the snap, the linebacker must account for the receiver across from him initially before accounting for Boldin. This creates a natural hesitation for the linebacker at the start of the play. After bracing for a Boldin hit that never comes, Houston quickly advances past the line of scrimmage to set the edge. He doesn't want to let Colin Kaepernick get to the outside, so he advances downfield, but he also doesn't want to be blocked out of the play on an inside run. Houston shows excellent technique to keep the blocker off of him and then reverse back to drag Kaepernick down.
The quarterback may have gained 5 yards on the play, but Houston handled this situation with great discipline and effectiveness. He limited the gain as much as could be realistically expected.
It's very rare that a dominant pass rusher offers his team such a well-rounded skill set. We haven't seen a player with Houston's versatility, consistency, and execution since James Harrison was in his prime. Harrison won Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, but he wasn't competing with an all-time talent like Houston is with Watt.
An Improved Broncos Passing Offense
If you only examine the Denver Broncos' 2013 season on the surface, it paints a very weird picture.
An offense that was historically productive during the regular season, at a time when the league was catering to offenses at the expense of every defense that took the field, proved to be incapable of providing any challenge against the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. A resounding victory for the NFC Champions came at the expense of an embarrassment for the AFC Champions. Even accepting that the Seahawks had one of the most impressive defenses you will ever see, it still made little sense that the Broncos could be blown out on a neutral field when the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints had both gone into Seattle and put up greater resistance
To understand that violent swing in fortunes, you must understand the structure of the Broncos offense at the time.
Peyton Manning threw for 5,477 yards with 55 touchdowns during the regular season; both numbers were NFL records. He was able to do that behind a suspect offensive line because of how his skills matched up with some very talented options at the skill positions. From his leading wide receiver through to his backup running back, it was hard to argue that anyone in the NFL had more depth around him in this area. While the Broncos' skill position players were very talented, though, they were mostly narrow talents -- players who were successful in very specific ways.
As highlighted before the Super Bowl, Demaryius Thomas wasn't the kind of receiver who beat defensive backs in every possible way. A huge percentage of his yardage came after the catch because he primarily caught passes against off coverage or on specific deep routes. Thomas was winning with his athleticism rather than his refined skill set as a receiver. The same could be said for his namesake at the tight end position, Julius Thomas, who enjoyed a breakout year because of his incredible physical ability and his natural comfort catching the football.
Eric Decker had a similarly narrow skill set, but his ability didn't come after the catch or in the form of freakish athleticism. Decker was an above-average athlete who could use his strength at the catch point while running specific routes to great effect. Wes Welker was the most well-rounded receiver that Manning had, but his explosiveness down the field had become limited by the time he wound up in Denver.
Manning was essentially throwing the ball to extremely talented role players, players who needed to be used in very specific ways to be effective. These pieces complemented each other well, and Manning's intelligence made it possible for the offense to produce despite its predictability. That game plan, however, was much tougher to execute against better quality of opposition -- a better quality of opposition that the Broncos were largely able to avoid until the Super Bowl.
Now, in 2014, the Broncos passing attack has changed. Both Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas have developed into better all-around players. Demaryius is consistently beating defensive backs in different ways, while Julius is taking the natural steps in his development that typically follow a player's rookie season. Julius wasn't a rookie last year, but it was his first prolonged exposure on the field, so the effect is similar. Decker departed for the New York Jets in free agency, leaving a space that would be filled by the player who really elevated the versatility and effectiveness of this offense.
Emmanuel Sanders was a third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2010 NFL draft. He entered the league alongside Antonio Brown, who would be his competitor for active roster spots during his rookie season.
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Sanders and Brown eventually earned roster spots together during that year, but Pittsburgh relied more heavily on Sanders. By the time the Steelers faced the Packers in the Super Bowl, Sanders was a key cog as the third receiver in the offense. He was expected to play a big role in the Super Bowl, but a foot injury sidelined him early on during the game. That foot injury would lead to another, as his fragile feet set Sanders' career back for two more years.
Sanders had beaten Brown out early on because of his versatility and refined skill set, but Brown later overtook him because Sanders couldn't create consistency on the field while battling the lingering issues with his feet. Therefore, when Sanders became a free agent, the Steelers showed very little interest in re-signing him. That opened the door for Sanders, now 27, to become a Broncos receiver, where he would take over for Decker ahead of this season.
Decker signed a much more lucrative deal than Sanders in free agency. That deal largely came about because of his physical measurements and his production with the Broncos, but it didn't mean that he was a better player.
Now healthy, Sanders is has played a huge role in diversifying the Broncos passing attack and making it more effective. He brings a versatility and type of explosiveness that hasn't been available to Manning since he arrived in Denver. Like Demaryius Thomas, Sanders can excel with the football in his hands. Like Wes Welker, Sanders runs precision routes with exceptional quickness to create space as a possession receiver. Like Julius Thomas, he has natural ball skills that allow him to excel at the catch point, even if he doesn't carry the same physical prowess.
Whereas Decker was a linear athlete who only ran a handful of routes with consistent effectiveness, Sanders is a very fluid athlete who runs every route imaginable with consistent effectiveness. Furthermore, Sanders offers the same threat lined up outside of the numbers as he does in the slot or lined up next to the offensive line as part of a three- or four-receiver set. While Decker stretched the field vertically, Sanders stretches it both vertically and horizontally.
Sanders is a different style of receiver than Decker, but he can do everything Decker does well to the same degree.
Both Decker and Sanders are impressive deep threats, but they create deep opportunities in different ways. Decker showed some level of quickness on the field, but he primarily came free deep because of his straight-line speed and size at the catch point. Sanders is very fast in a straight line and he wins at the catch point with his ball skills rather than his size. The key difference between the two players is that Sanders understands how to set up deep routes with his route running. We can see that on these two plays from last week's game against the San Diego Chargers.
On this play, Sanders is lined up to the top of the screen against rookie Jason Verrett. Verrett has had an impressive start to his rookie season, and he is not the type of cornerback that Sanders should be able to beat on a post route when the defensive back is in off coverage to start the play. Sanders is able to do this because of his acceleration off the line and his footwork to set up the inside route when he advances towards the defensive back down the field. Verrett reacts as well as any defensive back could be expected to, but a perfect throw from Manning combined with the speed and ball skills of Sanders allow the receiver to come up with a big play.
While the first example required a perfect throw and impressive catch, this play highlights Sanders' threat against press coverage in one-on-one situations. Sanders simply runs past Richard Marshall after initially selling an inside release with his quick feet at the line of scrimmage. The receiver's route created a simple throw for the quarterback and an easy touchdown.
The one concern with swapping Sanders in for Decker is that Manning loses a receiver who can win at the catch point and turn slightly inaccurate throws into easy catches with his size.
Size is quickly taking over for straight-line speed as one of the most consistently overrated aspects of being a football player. Sanders isn't a big receiver; he is listed at less than six feet tall. He makes up for his lack of size with exceptional ball skills and footwork. He is very comfortable catching the ball away from his body at full extension against tight coverage, while his hands and feet typically work together to allow him to make tight sideline receptions.
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Denver's transition from Decker to Sanders has undoubtedly improved the Broncos offense. His addition, added to the continued development of Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas, should allow this offense to be more effective against a greater quality of opposition this year. This is something that is already being reflected in DVOA.
The Broncos ranked first in DVOA as an offense last year, first in pass offense and 10th in run offense. Now that Knowshon Moreno is in Miami, the rushing offense has gotten notably worse, but that hasn't prevented the passing attack from getting significantly better. The Broncos finished the 2013 season with a 60.3% passing offense DVOA, almost eight percent higher than the second-place team and more than 20 percent higher than the third-place team. To this point in the 2014 season, the passing offense is first again, but this time at 67.7%. That's a 7.4% DVOA increase over what had already been the best passing offense in football.
And that's a scary thing to think about.