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The Film Room: J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, And The Texans’ Pass Rush

Matt Weston breaks down J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and their impact on Houston’s pass rush.

NFL: Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever waited four years for something? Not even spurned lovers with unrequited hearts, Olympians with world championships to win, or undergraduates wait this long for a single thing to occur. But you, you are different. Because in 2014 when Jadeveon Clowney was selected with the first overall pick, you dreamed of today. You fantasized about J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney playing at their peaks and dominating the field together. In 2014 Clowney played in only 4 games, and mustered only 7 tackles. In 2015 Clowney played in 13 games, but managed only 4.5 sacks, and wasn’t close to the player he is today. In 2016 J.J. Watt had back surgery after three games. In 2017 Watt played in five before pulverizing his tibia. But now in 2018, four years later, it’s here. Both Clowney and Watt are leading the best run defense in football, are the sole source of the Texans’ pass rush, and have combined their previous reigns of terror into a collective one. Those four years of reading through the same copies of Good Housekeeping in the waiting room, have led to this.

This obliteration didn’t happen right away this year either. Through the first three weeks of the season the Texans had a pressure rate of 18.2% (29th), they had a pass defense DVOA of 34.7% (28th), a run defense DVOA of -32.1% (3rd), and a total defensive DVOA of 0.2% (17th). During Houston’s losing streak Watt was the singular source of the pass rush. He had seven pressures. No one else had more than one. With the shoddy secondary Houston has, even when healthy, and without a debilitating pass rush, strange things happened. Eli Manning completing 86.2% of his passes. Houston had a pass defense DVOA of 39.6% against Blaine Gabbert. And Tom Brady yawned his way to three touchdowns—well that one isn’t so strange actually.

During this dark and fetid time, Watt was the only one who could get around the edge and get after the quarterback. He usually lined up against the right tackle. From there he would rip and long arm his way to the quarterback. And still to this day, that’s been the primary way he’s gone after the quarterback.

Houston is in a Nickle package. Two defensive tackles, one playing the ‘1’ technique, the other playing the ‘3’ technique, two wide ‘5’ edge rushers, and a linebacker hovering over the ‘A’ gaps. The other linebacker, Zach Cunningham is covering Eric Ebron by himself.

Watt is lined up across the right tackle. It’s a one one one block because of the distance from the right tackle. As long as he doesn’t sniff the ‘B’ gap, he only has to deal with one blocker. Although interior rushers have a shorter path to the quarterback, edge rushers usually don’t have to deal with many men. Instead, the advantage comes from isolation.

Denzelle Good, the right tackle, gets a fine pass set. It’s just not deep enough. Watt is too quick off the ball. Good is forced to turn his shoulders, making himself narrow, and gives Watt a path to the quarterback. When contact is made, Watt taps his punch down, and windmills up and underneath. From there he plants, bends on the edge and gets flat to Andrew Luck, and uses his big green angry man sized shoulders to shield himself from Good’s recovery. There’s no way to push Watt off his line once he gets flat. He wraps up Luck low, and forces a bounce pass to negate a first down conversion on first down.

Here’s the same rush on the goal line, but with dramatic results. Instead of a quarterback hit, this one ends in a turnover, and eventually a Texans’ touchdown. The difference here is the Texans show pre-snap pressure across from every offensive lineman. Watt is over Good, Zach Cunningham is over Matt Slauson, Duke Ejiofor is over Ryan Kelly, Whitney Mercilus is over Quenton Nelson, and Jadeveon Clowney is over La’Raven Clark. These are the sorts of looks Romeo Crennel utilizes to isolate Watt and Clowney against the tackles, and away from interior help.

Cunningham drops back in coverage. Slauson walks through hallways looking for footsteps that no longer exist. He searches back to help against Watt. Nobody is in the ‘B’ gap. He comes back inside to stand between Duke Ejiofor and Luck. Watt gets a great get off, and has a great rip, he’s just too deep. He’s off line with Luck when he slightly steps up. As he’s running past he sticks his bear paw out and pops the ball out of Luck’s hand. Ejiofor, blocked in the interior, his shoved to the football. Houston recovers.

When Watt isn’t edge hollering past the lesser pass blocking right tackle, he’s long arming and sneaking back inside instead. The long arm is a duller counter move than say the pin, or the bullrush, or the swim. It’s subtle, yet just as effective. The idea is simple. You can reach further with one arm than with two. If you have the strength to push a 315 pound man with one arm, rather than two, you can create additional space, clearing an open inside path to the quarterback. The difficult part of the rush is having the strength to be able to do it. Watt has it.

It’s another Nickle package. Four defensive linemen. Two linebackers. Except this time both linebackers are playing with normal depth, and Clowney is playing head up, rather than on the outside shoulder. Watt is wide. He looks to be edge rushing again.

The key for the inside move is for the outside move to be diabolical. Hellacious. Adjectives of that sptifire nature. Watt sizes Good up. Although Good is in better position than previously, he’s still concerned with the edge, especially since he’s protecting a longer developing play action pass. Good takes a deep vertical step back to gain the depth necessary to catch Watt head up to prevent himself from turning and trying to shove him past the quarterback. This is what Watt needs to see. This one deep step leads to Watt attempting to go through Good.

When Good sees Watt coming into him he immediately sinks like a boy scout in a latrine.

Watt gathers himself, explodes up into Good, punches him in the chest with both hands, and knocks his punch up into the air and off of him.

When the fight reconvenes Watt doesn’t use both arms. He only uses one back into Good. He jabs Good’s outside shoulder and creates extension, greater extension than what he could create with two arms.

At this point he has Good on his heels, who tries to dig himself into the mud, and an inside path to Luck. From there he drives the inside shoulder all the way into the quarterback.

He wraps the swamp creature up from behind, and finds the football mid bear hug. Clowney is free on the opposite side after going inside out to escape a double team, swims around Clark, splits the chip from the back, and comes back around to attempt to dive on the football. It’s close, Luck recovers, showcasing once again the randomness of fumble recoveries.

These have been the two primary ways Watt has rushed the passer. Ripping around the edge and dipping under punches.

Countering inside with long arms to create additional space to open up a path to the quarterback, and bullrushing through over extended tackles afraid to get beat around the edge.

Watt has been a top five pass rusher this year. He has 25 pressures, 4th most in football, 9 sacks, and 16 quarterback hits. The only dilemma is there’s such a dying need to get him in one v. one situations that these edge rushes mixed with bull rushes become predictable. Tackles sit on the bull rush then open wide and force him past the quarterback. Offenses chip and beat him with a broom back inside and into the arms of the tackle. Yet, even when this occurs, Watt is such a relentless rusher, he can create something from nothing. As the hammer on stunts, his power can create rushes for himself even when he’s supposed to be creating for others.

And even as the looper he can utilize the same long arm principles to create an open path to the quarterback. Here the right guard turns his shoulder and helps too far inside. He sprints back to pick up Watt. The great white leviathan pitter patters his feet, cuts back inside after shoving the guard wide, and devours Case Keenum. The ball rolls while he cleans his teeth with shrapnel from detonated ribs.

Clowney, on the other hand, hasn’t been a constant presence. He didn’t exist for the first three weeks of the season. Sure, you can be a nerd and say he was football good, but a player of his caliber shouldn’t play three straight games without accruing more than a singular pressure. That’s invisibility. Everything has changed since then. Clowney is once again a septum pierced witch doctor cooing the boogeymen to come out from the jungle. The dreaded tornado has 20 pressures (T-13th), 5.5 sacks, and 13 quarterback hits. And by dragging passing offenses down to depths where the fish become translucent, the Texans’ pass rush has jumped from 29th in pressure rate to 15th, and with it the pass defense DVOA has gone from 28th to 15th.

At first, Clowney may seem like a straight forward rusher. He doesn’t line up super wide, and instead prefers to line up as a closer shade, or head up with the blocker. He loves to fake outside and go in to bullrush, and chop punches away to open up the edge rush. Clowney can devour offensive linemen head up and bounce their heads off the tile, but it’s not just straight forward gory primordial violence. There’s a subtly to it.

Here Clowney is lined up against the left tackle Clark. He’s a ‘5’, but he’s not super wide. Compare him to Watt. The Texans surround the interior with three linebackers.

The main way Clowney creates an edge rush is by chopping and ripping. When he comes off the edge, he doesn’t loop wide around the blocker. He comes in tight and says mean things about the tackle’s mother to bait him into punching him. At the first sight of hands, Clowney knocks them down. The trouble with this rush is the defender is underneath the tackle’s punch. It’s possible for the lineman to recover by punching the side and shoving them wide. Clowney is too strong to be easily shoved, and he counters this by ripping upwards. It’s a chop. Then it’s a rip.

Once he gets his head inside, he’ll bend the edge like those 255 pound rushers do, and then go get the quarterback. I love the acceleration once he gets even with Luck to escape the block and chase him down.

This almost sack of Case Keenum was a chop and rip against former first round pick Garrett Bolles. Off the edge he comes directly at Bolles. He sizes him up directly. Trying to force him to stick em’ up.

It’s a classic game of if you show me yours I’ll show you mine. Clowney flashes his hands. Afraid to make contact second, a death sentence against bullrushers like Clowney, Bolles obliges and gets ready to punch him. Smarter and better pass blockers will flash their hands throughout their set and surprise the rusher with a strike to the chest. Bolles isn’t this. He’s young, is a very good run blocker, but struggles with his hands in pass protection.

Once Bolles shows his punch, Clowney waves his arms over his head.

And comes down over the top of Bolles’s punch. This gives him a unobstructed path to the edge. With constant moving Clowney gets around the corner.

From there it’s a rip, a bend around the edge, and Keenum throwing the ball at a downed dump off target.

Even when rushing head up, Clowney isn’t a straight forward bull rusher. He’s an entirely different player than he was in 2015. He no longer relies only on being bigger, faster, and stronger, which he is most of the time anyways. He instead creates angles, and openings, and easier paths to the quarterbacks. His bullrushes don’t simply push him straight through the offensive lineman as a downed rusher. Rather than go straight through the entirety of the blocker, he aims for the inside shoulder to take on only half of them.

Clowney is a tight ‘5’, almost playing head up with the terminator Tyron Smith. Watt is a comfortable ‘5’ on the other side against La’El Collins. As mentioned earlier, Clowney typically plays closer to the tackle than Watt, who’s game has been centered around edge bends and rips.

At the snap, Clowney takes a wide slide step inside, and a short step inside to plant. Once Smith fails to recover and face him head up, Clowney bounces off the inside foot, swims over the top, and accelerates through the opening in the line of scrimmage at Dak Prescott. This is the same sort of movement that Chandler Jones has used out in the Southwest. The quarterback births the ball and just barely gets rid of it.

This sack of Keenum is the same move, except this time the guard catches a feel, instead of missing contact completely.

The inside out move is especially destructive in the run game against one v. one blocks (more on this later this week), but Clowney uses it to also set up his bull rushes to get him on the blocker’s inside shoulder, or in this case, to disappear through walls entirely. He also loves to combine this move with a swim. The swim is hit or miss and better in the run game. The swim exposes the chest to the blocker, and against quick striking guards, and when playing immediately across from tackles where there’s less space, blockers have been able to carry him back inside the line of scrimmage without too much trouble.

Clowney isn’t just a tight edge rusher though. He’s the preeminent inside blitzer in all of football. Romeo Crennel loves to use Clowney as a stand up rusher. Straight forward and brutal. Clowney has the distance to increase his speed and power to cannonball through offensive linemen. It’s the same strategy Crennel employed back in 2016 to create an interior rush once Watt went down.

From the interior Clowney is mayhem incarnate. Running straight forward in a suicide mission he can take out multiple blockers and opens the rush for others. One of the great joys that comes from watching Clowney interior blitz is how he hangs around the line of scirmmage, just hovering, and dangling over the football. He looks like a drunken brawler from an arcade fighting game. He’s a man composed of polygons, not cells, close to tumbling off a rope and into a GAME OVER screen. Clowney is in the ‘B’ gap hazily staggering, waiting to jump the snap.

Off the ball he catches right guard Matt Slauson’s inside chest. He’s through him and has a path to the ball carrier.

But, it’s playaction, and Cloweny can’t add onto the ten tackles for a loss he already has. This momentum takes him all the way into the running back and past the guard. Whitney Mercilus is a spy standing in a wormhole.

The amazing thing about this play is that Clowney is able to run past the guard, into the running back, and still display the body control to stop, and try to swim back to the quarterback. For most defenders this is a positive point to their Pro Football Focus grade that they can later RT. For Clowney, this is an inconvenience to the greater goal.

Slauson is able to recover and come in low, knocking Clowney away and out of the play. Yet, this armageddon causing asteroid opens up the rush for Mercilus, who says screw the back, and goes after Luck instead.

The ball bounces at the back’s feet. Incomplete.

Clowney is also a spectacular looper on stunts too. On this infamous play, he comes flat down the line of scrimmage, into the ‘B’ gap, and checks Nelson into the boards, creating an open rush to Luck. Aside from an efficient geometrical decision, this isn’t a skillful play. This is just being a fire breathing monster turning a tank into a roller skate.

These are the things Crennel has to do to generate interior pressure. Aside from Clowney and Watt, the interior rush is just a bunch of guys. Ejiofor, although he’s a linebacker, the linebackers have been used to rush the interior this year, leads all inside rushers with 5.5 pressures. D.J. Reader has 4.5. Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKInney have 4. Everyone else has three or less.

The reason why this is crucial, is because like all smart teams do, they chip Watt and Clowney and force the Texans to win on the inside. Houston can’t do this. When teams chip and gouge at eyes, Houston doesn’t have an answer. They don’t have the inside rushing talent.

All these chips and doubles take their toll. It leads to exhausting rushes. Watt and Clowney coming out of the game, and babbling pass rush attempts at the end of games. In late game situations, Houston is susceptible on the back end once Watt and Clowney get worn down by all the arms and hands and helmets.

On the majority of their rushes, someone is doubling Watt or Clowney, and the other gets a one one on matchup if they’re lucky. When this happens, the singular matchup needs to generate pressure. If they don’t, the rush doesn’t exist. Shareece Wright or whoever is playing cornerback, or whichever linebacker is covering a tight end, gets picked on.

Both players have the talent to split doubles and create pressure on their own, but these are sublime moments, events, the tops of peaks, not the usual mountain side meadow stroll.

The schedule broke perfectly for Houston during their six game win streak. Aside from Indy, they played five teams who need to run the ball to have success. Up against the best run defense in football, none of these teams had much success, and they were unable to spread Houston out and take advantage of their lack of cornerback talent. For Houston’s pass defense to be good enough, the pass rush has to be rocking. Against possible AFC playoff teams: Kansas City, New England, Los Angles (C), Pittsburgh, and even Cincinnati, the rush, and Deshaun Watson and the offense morphing to be able to score 30 points is their only hope. Without it, the secondary will get picked apart on the back end.

The big wildcard is Whitney Mercilus. This year Mercilus has 15.5 pressures, 1 sack, and 8 quarterback hits. It’s fine. But it isn’t good enough. They are going to need more from him for the Texans’ pass defense to bump above average. Faced with one v. one blocks while Watt has three around him, and Clowney gets swallowed up, Mercilus has to make more disruptive plays along the edge. If he can do this, Houston can be something more than alright against the pass, something necessary for them to have dreams beyond Divisional Round chum.

Have those four years, all that staring out the window and imagining, all the sighing and hoping for those days to end up like today been worth it? I say yes. And even then, it can possibly get better, and for this year, there should be at least seven more games of it.