The kids of the 2014 NFL draft are starting to grow up. Last week Khalil Mack broke the Broncos with 7 tackles and 5 sacks; he now leads the league with 14. Blake Bortles broke advanced stats like QBR (3.8) and Pro Football Focus' Grading System (6.9) after throwing for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns. Sammy Watkins caught another long touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor. Odell Beckham Jr. had 7 catches on 9 targets for 166 yards and 2 touchdowns. Aaron Donald was the NFC Defensive Player of the Week after he sacked Matthew Stafford 3 times while being mic'd up.
Someone in this group is missing.
The number one overall pick quietly followed up the best game of his career against Buffalo with the best game of his career against New England.
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However, last week Mack and Donald overshadowed Jadeveon Clowney like he overshadowed them on draft day. Right now both Mack and Donald are better players, as they should be. They were each more refined coming out of college, and they've also had the chance to play.
In 2014, Clowney played in 4 games and took only 143 snaps on defense. In their careers, Donald has played 804 snaps more than Clowney, and Mack has played 1,159 more. Each has played about 30% more than Clowney has. This is pretty much Clowney's rookie year, and he's having to learn what his fellow classmates learned last season.
Missing a year of football is a tragedy for any young player, but even more so for Jadeveon. Coming out of college, he was a rough prospect. He didn't play with skill because he didn't need to. He just ran around and through smaller, weaker, and slower players. In the NFL, his insane athleticism has been mitigated going up against some of the best athletes in the world. He's needed to learn the skill to go along with the athleticism to turn his infinite potential into tangible results.
As a result, I was only looking to see flashes of athleticism from him when September appeared on the calendar. He's done that since Week One against Kansas City. In that game, he was a blur zooming across the field with foam spewing from his mouth. The physical abnormalities were there, but the skill wasn't.
After undergoing very scary microfracture knee surgery in December of 2014, this was a dream come true for the Houston Texans. Instead of sitting there worrying if Clowney was ever going to be the same, they were able to build upon his rare foundation, and spend this year teaching instead of hoping.
Now here we are, 479 defensive snaps into this season, and the gap between his skill and athleticism is starting to narrow. Clowney is beginning to understand how to play the game. He is catching up to Mack and Donald.
Against New England, this was seen immediately. On the Patriots' first offensive play, they ran an inside zone play to the left with the fullback cracking back on J.J. Watt. Before the snap, they motion Rob Gronkowski to block Clowney by himself.
At outside linebacker, Clowney's first step is always outside. This is a preemptive step that allows him to read the lineman before he chooses how to attack. He sizes Gronk up. He recognizes he's protecting the inside gap and is just trying to stop Clowney from crashing inside. Jadeveon picks this up instantly. His second step is directly at the blocker.
Before he makes contact, he drops his hips to create leverage.
He punches and extends Gronk. Clowney has insane upper body strength. He controls the block after attacking the center of one of the best blocking tight ends in the game. He outfreaks one of the biggest freaks in the NFL.
After he gains control, Clowney shuffles inside to the ball carrier. If he wanted to, he could just drive Gronk into the backfield and show what the human body is capable of. Instead, he looks to make a play on the ball.
He uses his right arm to grab Gronkowski's right to try and get off the block. After this, he'll run towards the back. The problem is this isn't a real way to gain separation off a block. Knocking the hands off and running is just a momentary opening. This leaves Clowney weak and open for Gronk to recover and move him.
This is one of the things Clowney can still improve on. He has the strength to control blocks and move offensive players. He just doesn't have an exit move to get off the block. Clowney needs to get better at ripping and using his body to protect himself when he goes to make a tackle.
Instead of wrapping up the ball carrier, Clowney can only stick an arm out.
He helps close the hole. Yet, if Cushing wasn't there, LeGarrette Blount could've run through Clowney's arm tackle into the second level.
Earlier this season, Clowney wasn't even doing this. He was just attacking the outside shoulder and screaming into the backfield. That's cool and all, but it doesn't lead to production. Getting into the backfield doesn't matter if the defender isn't even in the same zip code as the ball carrier. Clowney's growing up. He's actually reading and reacting. Instead of trying to burn and pillage like a barbarian, he's making educated football plays.
The last play showcased Clowney's strength in the run game. This play exemplifies his quickness in the box.
Houston is in a 3-4 with a small change in formation. Rather than have Clowney play standing up, they let him play the same wide 5 technique with his hand down. He's in a more comfortable position in the redzone. On this lead play Clowney is matched up one-on-one against New England's left tackle, Sebastian Vollmer.
There's the same first outside step.
His second step is back inside, but it's not directly at the tackle. It's flatter. It's more of a jumping off point.
Rather than make contact head on with Vollmer, he steps back outside. Vollmer leans to try and make contact. The tackle's aiming point is Clowney's sternum. Reality is much different. His head is outside of Clowney's shoulder. He's about a foot off the mark.
Clowney steps with his left foot. He doesn't gain ground with it, though. This step brings him perpendicular with the line of scrimmage to set up his pursuit. This is crisp. This is perfect.
Now he runs flat down the line of scrimmage in pursuit of the back.
Vollmer goes down like some schmo trying to guard The Professor on a playground in Portland.
Another one of the issues Clowney had in the first part of the season was his inability to change directions once he starts sprinting. Here he quickly adjusts and comes back to Blount. If he doesn't do this, Blount probably scores after a one-handed J.J. Watt gets pancaked by Shaq Mason.
The dreaded hellion forces Blount to try and run tight off of Bryan Stork's block. Vince Wilfork sticks an arm out and swallows Blount, and Clowney wraps up from behind.
This is the athleticism Rick Smith and scouts in offices and armchairs across the country drooled over when they watched Clowney in college. He takes three steps without punching, runs around Vollmer, and tackles Blount for a gain of one.
After the first quarter, New England started to run away from Clowney to neutralize him in the run game. Despite his speed, he plays too far outside to be able to have a presence from the back side of the play. The Patriots also started double-teaming Clowney when they ran at him and stopped leaving one man on an island to block him. As a result, his production in the run game stopped because of the situation, not because of his play.
In run defense, Clowney has the perfect combination of size and strength. He's fast enough to run around slower offensive linemen. He's powerful enough to go through weaker tight ends. The athleticism is here, and the skill is almost there as well. He now understands how to read the lineman, how to attack the blocker, and how to react and find the ball carrier. The only thing he needs to improve on is his exit move to get off the block.
Although he's had success against the run, he was taken to rush the passer. Smart general managers can find stronger players who can set the edge and sit. Elite pass rushers are hard to find.
Aside from running through the poor weak souls of the SEC, the only pass rush move Clowney had in college was a swim move. This is the one move he's comfortable with, and it's the one he's had success with so far in the NFL.
It's first and ten on New England's first drive of the second half. Clowney is a nickel defensive end matched up against tight end Michael Williams (#85).
He takes his first step outside.
He recognizes Williams' attempt at pass blocking and steps towards him.
Williams leans when he punches because he doesn't have the strength to jostle Clowney with his arms alone. He has to bring his body into it to add some extra oomph. Jadeveon slaps Williams' back and propels him forward while bringing his arm over the top.
He comes at a sharp angle off the block.
The running back, Brandon Bolden, steps up to help. Clowney uses his feet to get around this block. He steps at Bolden before cutting the opposite direction.
He has a free path to the quarterback.
But Tom Brady throws the ball to Danny Amendola before he can have an impact.
This play shows Clowney's main pass rush move--the swim. It also shows his footwork. He'll either step outside, then straight ahead, and then back outside. Or he'll step outside, and then into the blocker. It all depends on how the lineman reacts to his first step. Clowney now has a plan when he rushes the passer instead of guessing. He's attacking the outside shoulder and trying to run around the blocker with a pocket full of shells or bullrushing.
Now that he's learn how to read instead of guess, the biggest hole in his pass rush game is that he doesn't know what to do if he doesn't win off the snap. If the tackle covers him up, he will just sit there until the play ends. It's not really a lack of motor, though. It's not like he isn't playing hard. He just doesn't have a backup plan once his main strategy fails. The thing is his primary moves can be unbelievable.
This, right here, is the greatest play of Clowney's career. Clowney is looking to rush the passer on 3rd and 3 with New England in 1x0x4 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR). He's matched up against the left tackle, Vollmer. Houston is showing pressure with Brian Cushing, Whitney Mercilus, and Benardrick McKinney in the A and B gaps.
At the snap Cushing and McKinney evacuate the premises. Jadeveon takes his outside step.
Clowney sees how high Vollmer is playing. So he steps back in the direction of the tackle to go through him.
And punches Vollmer right in the face.
BAM. He Deacon Jones'd him.
I know it's illegal, and it should be an "illegal hands to the face" penalty, but it's so beautiful. He just punches him right in the face. The strength of the punch stuns the tackle, knocks him backwards, and gives Clowney the B gap.
Because McKinney drops back in coverage, the guard, Shaq Mason (#69), comes over to help out.
The guard doesn't get any depth. He just runs at Clowney.
As a result, Jadeveon is able to get his head across Mason's body. He uses some skill and rips underneath his left arm. Vollmer tries to recover and moves in front of Clowney.
Clowney keeps fighting forward. He shoves Vollmer out of the way one more time.
AAAAAAHHHHHHH! He finds himself screaming in a hotel room.
He leaps in the air to stop Tom Brady from throwing the ball away.
He comes down and wraps up the quarterback.
You gotta love it. Watt surely does.
This is illegal and nasty, but it's breathtaking. For too long Houston hasn't had a pass rusher aside from Watt who can get to the quarterback. These last two weeks Clowney has done it with a trinity of skill, athleticism, and nastiness.
The emergence of Clowney is even more important now with Watt's broken hand. THE CLUB made an enormous difference last week. Watt had faced double and triple teams all season like he did against New England, but this time he couldn't do anything. He played the entire game with one arm.
It's a perfect example of how important hands are in defensive line play. Most think that being big and strong is all that matters. Yes, athleticism is important, but without great hands, you can't consistently do your job. Watt couldn't grab the chest and control blocks. He couldn't rush, swim, or spin. The only thing he could do is run as fast as he can into blockers. As a result, Houston had him rush from the linebacker position multiple times as a way to increase his velocity when he reached the line. Watt was just a cannonball, not a football player.
That being said, Watt running as fast as he can into the line is still a weapon. He's an artillery strike that can bombard the ground and soften things up for the infantry. Clowney's second sack was exactly this.
Houston is running a T-E stunt with Watt and Clowney. Watt goes outside to distract the guard and tackle from the smoke monster that's rushing the B gap.
Despite THE CLUB, the guard and tackle are both preoccupied by Watt.
They converge on him.
Clowney's footwork is great here again. One step outside with his second step that changes his direction to the B gap. There's zero guessing or wasted steps.
The guard doesn't pass Watt over to the tackle. He's leaning, lunging, and sticking to the block. Consequently, he can't react fast enough to Clowney, who's quickly accelerating to full speed.
The only thing the guard and center can do is turn around and watch Clowney scream past them.
Brady is able to sidestep the big hit before going down.
When the Texans drafted Clowney, this was the dream. Not only would they get someone other than Watt who could rush the passer, but they would also get a freak that could complement Watt on stunts. With Watt injured, they're going to need Clowney to do exactly this. Together, this tag team needs to hoist belts over their heads instead of just being a number one contender.
The last on-field issue with Clowney's game is his problems making tackles. He'll run around the defender and get into the backfield, only to whiff on the ball carrier. Too often, this blur flashes across the screen with the play ending in him stomping up and down in frustration, instead of standing over a broken body and slathering himself in glorious cheers.
Here's Clowney missing a tackle on Blount in the backfield.
And here he's missing Brandon Bolden.
We all have seen the hit that made Clowney famous. We all know the hit. It's spectacular. Yet, part of me thinks the big hit on the Michigan running back was a terrible thing to happen to Clowney. He doesn't stop and chop his feet or size his man up. He just gets back there and leaps. It looks like he's trying to relive his college days by duplicating the hit. He's trying to knock the helmet off the defender instead of trying to knock him down. The good news is this is something practice and tackling drills can change.
After watching Clowney play these last few weeks, one thing is clear, Clowney is really good, and I hope he never gets injured again. Since he became a Houston Texan, he's missed practice and games because of a sports hernia and injuries to his back, ankle, knee, immune system, and meniscus. This scares me. My heart is already filled with worms and decorated with scabs.
If he gets hurt again, it would be heartbreaking. He's come such a long way since college. The athletic flash is turning into a skillful football player. You can see it in the way he takes on blockers in the run game, how he reads an offensive lineman's feet, and the emergence of real pass rush moves. These are all things he's learning in his "rookie" year.
He isn't decimating opponents yet. He isn't leading the league in sacks yet. He isn't winning player of the week awards yet. This all hasn't happened yet. That's what next year is for as long as he stays healthy.
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