Under Pressure: In Praise of Watt
by J.J. Cooper
The game may not seem as pure as it did years ago, the rules have been slanted to favor the offenses to an insane degree, and it's hard to know nowadays what hit on a quarterback is actually legal. But we are living in a golden age for football.
Step back into the 1970s for a moment. Cable TV was something that you used if you lived a long way from TV stations or in a mountainous area. Football on TV consisted of your local team's games, a pair of additional national games on Sunday afternoon and one Monday night football game. Highlights were the play or two per game you saw on CBS' NFL Today halftime show, NBC's NFL '77 (or '78 or '79) and Howard Cosell's much anticipated halftime highlights during Monday Night Football.
If you wanted to see what made O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, Roger Staubauch, or Terry Bradshaw great, the highlights and the occasional national game would give you a pretty good idea. But to appreciate the greatness of Patriots guard John Hannah or even Steelers defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene, you needed to live in the Boston or Pittsburgh area. Highlights and the sporadic national game didn't give you many chances to see their greatness play after play -- linemen are best appreciated in larger chunks of action.
By the 1980s, the arrival of ESPN and eventually NFL Primetime gave NFL fans a wonderful new toy. The idea of seeing minutes of highlights from each and every NFL game was a complete revelation. It became easier to appreciate Jerry Rice's greatness on catch after catch. Lawrence Taylor's unstoppable pass rush could be better appreciated when you got to see four or five pass plays rather than one highlight of a sack.
The 1990s were not a whole lot different from the 1980s, but the 2000s saw the widespread arrival of Sunday Ticket. All of a sudden it became viable to watch every game of your favorite team, even if you didn't live in your team's city.
But nowadays, thanks to the arrival of Game Rewind and the all-22 view, a football aficionado can truly appreciate any of the greats of the game today easily. We have cracked the code on watching linemen play after play from an end zone angle where their greatness is easily apparent.
Which means that we have a great opportunity to truly appreciate J.J. Watt.
If you have Game Rewind, please pick a couple of Texans' games and watch 99 for each and every Texans' play on defense. He's pretty easy to spot, even if you can't see his jersey number. Look for the big black elbow brace on his left arm.
Watt already ranks seventh on the list of most sacks compiled in a player's first four NFL seasons. With 8.5 sacks in the final seven games, he'll tie DeMarcus Ware for third most all-time. No one is catching Reggie White's 70 sacks in his first four seasons anytime soon, but, much like White, Watt is not simply an edge pass rusher. He often drops inside in passing situations, and provides pressure up the middle. He's an excellent run defender. And with his massive wingspan, he's also extremely hard to throw over, as his 34 career passes defensed illustrates. He's everything you could want in a 3-4 defensive end (or a 4-3 defensive end, or a 4-3 defensive tackle...hell, just play him anywhere along the line in any scheme and he fits).
But he's even better appreciated if you watch Watt over a full game or two.
This week was another good one for Watt. He had seven tackles, five quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks and another half-sack that was waved off because of a penalty. The week before he had two sacks, three tackles, and two quarterback hits.
Even when he doesn't get a sack, he's simply terrifying for quarterbacks.
When he does get a sack, it sometimes reminds one of a David Attenborough special where a cheetah has caught an unlucky antelope.
I've watched more 1970s Steelers games than any rational human being should admit to seeing, but I still am left unsatisfied because I know I will never get a chance to fully appreciate Joe Greene at his best. By the middle of the 1975 season a nerve problem had reduced Greene from being a one-man destroyer of offenses to simply an All-Pro caliber player. Most games that are still available from any source are from 1975 or later.
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With Reggie White, there was the chance to see the occasional game when the Eagles (and later the Packers) were on national TV. But it wasn't easy to watch him play after play.
That's not the case these days with Watt. We can easily watch every play of every game Watt plays from an end zone angle.
It's one of the great things about the NFL in the '10s. And I can't help but wonder if we're seeing an all-time great in his prime.
Innovative Blitz of the Week
It has been a long-time since a team has been surprised to see the standard crossfire A-gap blitz. Pretty much any team that uses zone blitz concepts runs it. Two linebackers line up in the A-gaps (the gaps between the center and guards) and at the snap, they blitz through the opposite A-gap (hence the "crossfire"). Another variant is the simple double A-gap blitz where two blitzers fire through, hopefully helped by a nose tackle to occupy the center.
They are two useful blitzes, but both can be picked up pretty well if a team is prepared for them and keeps a back in to help in blitz pickup.
The Titans this week added a new refinement. Instead of sending two men through the A-gaps, they sent three. Houston picked up the first two blitzers with few problems, but by adding the wrinkle of a third up-the-middle rusher, the Titans were able to get a man free for a very easy sack.
This is the kind of play that is best saved for obvious passing situations. It's a five-man rush, with three rushers hitting the same gap, so against a running play, there are some weaknesses in gap coverage that could be exploited. But if run against a pass, it's an excellent way to get a defensive coordinator's dream -- a rusher coming untouched up the middle.
Matt Kalil Sack of the Week
The Vikings' left tackle's slide from Pro Bowl caliber pass protector to Levi Brown's heir apparent for the crown of "what's this guy doing playing left tackle?" continued with another sack against the Redskins, and again, it wasn't pretty.
That's nine sacks for Kalil this season. Many of them have been absolute protection busts where the quarterback has no chance to get rid of the ball.
Blame the Scheme
With a quarterback who can run like Colin Kaepernick, some sacks are going to be part of the package. Kaepernick was sacked 39 times last year, and this year he was on a similar pace, until a nightmarish Week 9.
Kaepernick was sacked eight times by a Rams' defense that came into the game with six sacks all season.
In watching the sacks, it's pretty apparent that the blame needs to go to the 49ers' play design and some poor play by the offensive tackles. Only one of the eight sacks was a long sack (3.2 seconds or more), so it's hard to blame Kaepernick.
Anthony Davis was simply beaten by Will Hayes' speed rush twice in the first two quarters. In between those sacks was a James Laurinaitis sack where he came untouched because the 49ers didn't have enough blockers to pick up an overload blitz.
Still just midway through the second quarter, the Rams sent a seven-man rush against the 49ers' empty backfield set. The result was an easy sack for Robert Quinn as Kaepernick didn't have time to throw to several open receivers.
Still in the second quarter, Quinn got his second sack by simply flying past left tackle Joe Staley to the outside. A 3.9-second sack on a failed scramble late in the second quarter is the one sack that appeared to be as much about coverage as any poor call or play.
The final two sacks were plays where backup center Marcus Martin looked in over his head. On both sacks, Martin was simply tossed aside for up-the-middle pressure.
Thanks to this disaster of a game, the 49ers Adjusted Sack Rate now ranks 31st in the NFL.
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Short Sacks of the Weeks
Gerald McCoy has been on one of the best stretches of his career. McCoy had a pair of sacks against the Browns this past week after picking up a sack in Week 8 against the Vikings.
The fastest sack in Week 8 was simply a case of a poor line call by the Packers. The Packers slanted their protection away from Saints defensive end Charles Jordan. Even though it was only a four-man rush, that call left Jordan unblocked, and he responded with the easiest sack he'll get all year. Aaron Rodgers was sacked just 1.6 seconds after the snap.
Long Sacks of the Weeks
Rams quarterback Austin Davis bought all kinds of time with a Week 8 scramble where he rolled out to his right, then reversed field and ran back to the middle. It didn't do him any good. He was yanked down by Chiefs safety Ron Parker 7.3 seconds after the snap.
The longest sack of Week 9 wasn't nearly as long (5.5 seconds), but it had a similar theme. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin was the victim of a slow-developing play that left him unready to throw when he actually had a receiver open. He then scrambled to his left and stopped to throw, but he was nailed by Vikings end Brian Robison before he could set and throw.