It's happened. It's finally happened. Jadeveon Clowney is playing an entire season of disruptive football. His rookie year started with a torn meniscus and ended with microfracture knee surgery. Last season, he missed time because of a cornucopia of maladies. Health was a strange occurrence, not a consistent aspect of his life. Yet throughout the 2015 season, when he did play, Clowney showed flashes of that pre-draft athleticism and freakazoidness we heard so much about. He proved that having all those microscopic holes drilled into his knee wouldn't derail his career. This season, he's finally healthy. He's played 80.1% of the Texans' defensive snaps. Skill and athleticism are now intersecting right at the center.
Aside from health, one of the things that has changed with Clowney is the primary position he plays. Houston moved him from a stand-up outside linebacker to a right defensive end. His hand is down. He's buried in the trenches as a five technique.
The move to defensive end has brought Clowney closer to the ball. This has led to him having a greater effect on the run game. He's no longer setting the edge and forcing things back to the middle. He's now derailing rushing attacks like a radioactive monster stomping on tracks. With a combination of elite size, speed, and strength, all bound together in dreaded sinew, Jadeveon Clowney can devour single blocks, take on double teams, and shut down runs no matter where he lines up.
The Texans have been below average at stopping the run this season. They are only at a level above "horrible" because of Clowney and Benardrick McKinney. The Texans are the best in the league at stopping runs over the left tackle, above average against middle runs, and among the worst in the league everywhere else.
|Attempts||27 (T-18)||23 (30)||165 (6)||32 (T-14)||28 (17)|
||2.3 (1)||3.83 (T-10)||4.63 (24)||5.71 (28)|
|ALY||4.1 (21)||2.58 (4)||3.86 (15)||4.94 (31)||4.6 (26)|
"ALY" stands for "adjusted line yards."
Teams can't and haven't run the ball at Jadeveon Clowney. Houston has seen the third least attempts over the left tackle; on those runs, they are holding teams to 2.3 yards per carry. Everywhere else Houston is ranked 27th, tied for 10th, 24th, and 28th in yards per carry.
The toughest part about blocking Clowney is that teams are usually stuck using only one blocker against him. That's horrifying for offenses because blocking Clowney with a single individual is nearly impossible, yet it's happening all the time. Because Clowney is primarily playing the 3-4 defensive end position with occasional looks at outside linebacker, he's rarely double teamed. Against Houston's 3-4 defense, the double team usually comes against Vince Wilfork or whoever is playing nose tackle. Even when Clowney is doubled, a strong double teamed is rarely used. Outside runs are all about getting hats on hats. Inside runs hardly ever double a 3-4 defensive end. As a result, blockers are only offering only a quick hand of help and scurrying to the next level.
Here it's second down at Houston's one-yard line. Clowney is playing over the seventh offensive lineman. Yes, the Raiders are using eight offensive linemen on this play. He is lined head up over the 6'5", 340 pound Denver Kirkland, who has a double team with the 6'5", 315 pound Menelik Watson.
Brian Cushing is playing downhill at the goal line. Watson isn't able to get much on the double and is primarily focused on Cushing. Kirkland gets no help. Although Clowney is supposed to be double-teamed, the occasion doesn't allow it.
Clowney is 6'5" and 270 lbs. He's outweighed by 70 pounds here. It doesn't matter. He's faster and stronger than Kirkland. He shoots off the ball into Kirkland's pads, gets under his chin, and has his hands inside.
Clowney rolls his hips up to press Kirkland, and he raises him off the ground. Who's blocking who?
With traffic up the middle, Jamize Olawale tries to cut left. Instead, whoops...he ends up in Kirkland's back.
The play is stonewalled inside and over the left tackle. A.J. Bouye has an open lane to the back. He sprints through the holes and wraps up Olawale's legs.
At the point of attack, you can't block Clowney with one defender, no matter the size of the offensive tackle. He's too quick off the line. He's too strong. But because of the scheme and his position, teams are stuck having to do so and are averaging just 2.3 yards a carry running at him as a result.
Clowney is a cheat code in the run game. Most run defenders either focus at shedding individual blocks and bolting into the backfield to stuff the run game behind the line of scrimmage, or they sit, take on two blockers, constipate movement at the line of scrimmage, and open things for the linebackers. Clowney does both. He can teleport past single blocks and hold his ground against double teams.
Here the Oakland Raiders are running an outside zone play to the left out of a six offensive linemen set. When Oakland went to six linemen sets, the Texans ran a 5-2-4 to counteract it by putting both Whitney Mercilus and Clowney on the line of scrimmage. Clowney is in a two-point stance over the tight end. The Raiders are doubling him with tight end Clive Walford and Menelik Watson. Walford is supposed to hit Clowney's outside half and carry up to the alley defender Quintin Demps. Waston is supposed to take over the block.
Clowney sits and stays still. He holds his ground and swats Walford away like a sweaty mound of gnats. He tosses Watson aside when he tries to overtake the block. Then, when the running back gets to the hole, Clowney lunges into him to make the tackle.
On these past plays, Clowney is playing straight ahead by attacking his man or holding his ground. He's just more explosive and stronger than the blockers. In the past, Clowney made plays against the run because he was a better athlete than the average offensive tackle. Now in his third year, he's reading and reacting. He's so much more than a physical specimen. So much more than a pinnacle of human strength and evolution. He's an actual football player.
In this clip, it's third and one with the score tied 10-10 at the end of the third quarter. Houston is in their nickel package. Clowney is standing up at the left defensive end position. The Raiders are running dart to the left. They are pulling Austin Howard (#77) to playside linebacker Benardrick McKinney (#55). Tight end Mychal Rivera (#81) has one of the toughest blocks you could make in the NFL. He has to cut off Clowney, who's jumping out of his shoes pre-snap.
When Clowney sees Howard pull, he knows instantly the Raiders are running to the left. He's downhill by the time Howard has taken one step. A single step is all his brain needs to tell his body to crash inside. Clowney is a blur. He is a dreaded head morphed into a swath of bats, swirling out of the deepest and darkest holes in the Earth.
Rivera stands no chance. He's trying to block a 4.53 running maelstrom that bolts downhill at the snap. Clowney is already on Howard's back.
Clowney punches Howard in the back. He doesn't try to go around him. He doesn't pause to let him run past so he can make a play on the ball. Clowney goes through him. Even if Clowney doesn't make a play on the ball and takes out the puller, McKinney is there to clean the rest up like a vulture killing a Halo 2 player using one right trigger pull of a battle rifle to end someone whose shields are down.
DeAndre Washington, like Olawale earlier, is stuck behind an offensive lineman. He's in Howard's back and has nowhere to go.
Clowney shoves Howard and sends him sprawling.
Then C;owney plants to make the tackle and swallows the running back without chewing.
Clowney's quick recognition and speed of sound reaction, coupled with his athleticism, make him a repressed memory terror on the backside of runs. He makes plays even when you run away from him. No matter where you run, Clowney can bring down the ball carrier.
This play against San Diego is nearly identical. It's 3rd and 1. San Diego is running an inside zone play away from Clowney. Hunter Henry is tasked with cutting Clowney off and shielding him from the playside. Like the previous play, Clowney sees it instantly and crashes inside. Except here he knocks the blocker into the running back and uses him as a bowling ball to turn Melvin Gordon into a slender, cigarette smoke yellowed pin.
This is pretty much the greatest play of all time.
This season, Jadeveon Clowney has 33 tackles, 28 stops, and 9 stuffs according to Pro Football Focus. All those tick marks don't do him justice. He's always disrupting. He lives in the backfield.
On this short yardage run, Houston is using a 5-3-3 to match up against Oakland's heavy set. Clowney is playing as a 4, head up with left tackle Donald Penn. In a flash, he swims over Penn and into the backfield.
His first step is inside and at Penn, but instead of attacking Penn head on, he plants with this same first step and bounces off of it.
His second step is wide and outside. He uses his right arm to swim and burp Penn all in one motion. Slamming the left tackle downward, Clowney uses this momentum to carry him past the offensive tackle.
On that same second step he plants with his right foot. Instantaneously, Clowney screams flat down the line of scrimmage. In two steps, he's past one of the best run blocking offensive tackles in the NFL. Three steps, and he's pursuing the ball carrier.
The fullback who's supposed to clear out Whitney Mercilus is forced to shift his attention to Clowney. But because of Clowney's acceleration, he misses him completely. It's like trying to block the smoke monster from "Lost."
Clowney chases, but he doesn't get there in time to prevent Latavius Murray from getting the one yard needed for the first down.
Against the run, Clowney is pretty much perfect. He can do it all. He scoffs at one on one blocks. He holds his ground against double teams. He makes plays on the ball no matter where he is. BUT, if you had to find a chip in the marble, the one imperfection is that Jadeveon Clowney doesn't make as many tangible plays as he should. He's always in the backfield, yet the plays don't end in measurable results. Too often the plays end up like the previous one. He gets back there, but he doesn't make the tackle either because he whiffs, or because he's too high and misses the tackle, or he takes a poor pursuit angle, or the hole opens up before Clowney gets there. Other than that, Clowney is a laboratory run defender.
The problem is that Clowney hasn't produced as a pass rusher. This season, he has 23 hurries and eight quarterback hits according to Pro Football Focus. He has only three sacks.
The main reason for this is that Houston isn't getting any interior rush except on inside stunts and blitzes. Vince Wilfork, Christian Covington, Antonio Smith, D.J. Reader, and Joel Heath have all received playing time on the inside. All have provided practically nothing against the pass. Wilfork has one hurry, Covington has one hurry, Smith has two hurries, amd Reader has two and a half hurries. Houston's entire pass rush comes from manufactured inside rushes and Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney beating their man on the outside.
Because of this, Clowney doesn't get a lot of free rushes. Running backs can cut him without having to worry about first priority inside rushers. Guards can peel off and help shut down Clowney's inside moves because centers can handle the defensive tackle's rush without a problem. Clowney is having to rush with the constant threat of his legs being taken out or a guard removing his insides. It's led to him becoming hesitant. He's not as young, wild, and free as he could be.
That being said, Clowney still isn't taking advantage of every pass rush. Too many of his rushes don't bring any threat of pressure. He isn't using moves. He doesn't have a real plan. He's not setting up his rushes. It's the same almost every time: size the offensive tackle up, stab the foot inside, and bounce outside. Or size the the offensive tackle up, stab the foot outside, and cut inside. It's way too predictable. The only times Clowney has had any real consistent success is when he is stunting or blitzing from a standup inside linebacker position. He's too great of an athlete to not be producing as a pass rusher.
This play against San Diego is a combination of both issues. The Chargers' offensive line has the left side moving one gap over, and the right side is lined up man on man. Clowney is matched up against Joe Barksdale.
Clowney sizes the offensive tackle up and gets a gauge of Barksdale's set. More importantly, he sees Kenneth Farrow coming out of the backfield. Clowney sees him coming to chip. He plants his outside foot and cuts inside.
Barksdale punches Clowney's chest. Farrow goes to make contact.
Clowney gets horizontal with Barksdale to dodge the chip.
Because of his speed, he's able to get his head on the tackle's inside shoulder. To the left of him is a wall of four blocking three. There is no threat of a rush.
Most of Houston's pass rushes look just like this. Houston is 21st in adjusted sack rate at 5.5% and 22nd in pressure rate at 17.5%. The only reason their pass defense is as good as it is is because of their secondary.
Barksdale has his hands inside though. That's the key here. He's the captain. He's in control of the block. He keeps his feet moving and is able to stay in front of Clowney and shove him inside.
Phillp Rivers sees no real threat of a pass rush except for a late hit emitted by Joel Heath (#93) that has no impact on the play.
This has been life for the Texans' pass defense. It's been a lot of guys unable to beat their one-on-one blocks, and Kareem Jackson, A.J. Bouye and Johnathan Joseph locking down wide receivers. Without J.J. Watt, it was expected that the pass rush would fall off. It wasn't expected for the rush be as impotent as it is.
Although Clowney has three sacks this year, only one was a result of skill. One was a chase down of Jay CUTLA. The other was when Ben Jones knocked Clowney off of Quinton Spain's block against Tennessee. Clowney's only sack that was a real result of pass rushing superiority was against Detroit. And OmG was it beautiful.
Clowney is a wide five technique. He just runs past the offensive tackle. Nothing flashy. He just beats the tackle to the spot, rips under his outside arm, and sprints past him to the quarterback. That's it.
Clowney doesn't lack skill. It's the players around him and his own inhibitions that are hurting him. His inside moves lead to him getting gouged in the ribs. His outside rushes bring running backs into his knees and leave him flailing like an aimlessly wandering GTA pedestrian flipping over a teenager-controlled car. Rarely is Clowney just rearing back and attacking. He's sizing, looking, and thinking rather than using his athleticism and any sort tactful pass rush moves. There's no ripping. There's no swimming. There's no spinning. More plays like this against Detroit should happen. They need to happen.
Clowney has been a demon this year. He shuts down the run all on his own. You can't run at him. Even if you run away from him, it doesn't mean you are free from his grasp. He's the reason why Houston is best in the league at stopping the run over the left tackle. He influences plays away from him. In the passing game, there is so much sitting on the table. He's far away from being a great rusher at the moment, regardless of all that potential dripping underneath.
This season has proven that Jadeveon Clowney is more than just flashes and athleticism. He's a great NFL player in year three. It's happened. It's finally happened.
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