The box score is a limited expression of reality. Silly little squibbles indicating the number of rush attempts, completions, tackles, quarterback hits, and passes defensed among other things.
It’s all an impossible attempt to screenshot a football game, to try and determine why, to measure a player’s contributions to the contest, but it’s a futile one. It’s an attempt to define the undefinable.
Football is a silly game consisting of 22 different bodies of various shapes, skills, and athletic profiles, smashing, scratching, catching, running, chasing, and shoving, doing everything they can to move and limit the movement of a funny shaped ball like a pack of mutilated animals fighting over the last carcass, as if the days of all biological life are waning and quickly approaching their whimpering end.
There’s no numbers, no play-by-play charting that truly depict this infinite assortment of actions. The best we can do is provide a murky baseline.
Because of all that, box score simpletons fail to fully understand how special of a player Jadeveon Clowney really is. The things Clowney does exist outside the boundaries of what is measurable. The things he does are inconceivable and impossible to etch down with some numerical quantifier. 3 passes defensed. 4 forced fumbles. 2 touchdowns. 3 sacks. 31 tackles. 7 tackles for a loss. 13 quarterback hits. 41 pressures. What does it mean? What does anything really mean? It means nothing when assessing the impact the first overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft has on a game.
The only thing that truly depicts what Clowney does on the field is that one vital and clear and resounding truth—the film. It becomes astoundingly simple to see. Sack totals be damned, Clowney is one of the best front seven defenders in football.
He’s an elite run defender who completes every conceivable task. Two-gapping, taking on the outside half and sitting, slanting inside to create disruption, attacking one-on-one blocks to create negative plays, liquidating pullers, and chasing down ball carriers from the backside are all on his to-do list.
Of all these tasks, playing one blocker head on and controlling two gaps is the one Seattle had him doing the least of last year. The Seahawks got funky sometimes and utilized 6-1 and even 6-2 fronts to play outside zone heavy teams like the Rams and even here, against the Falcons.
Clowney punches right tackle and run blocking strong man Kaleb McGary with two hands and controls both the ‘B’ and ‘C’ gap. This allows Jarran Reed (#91) to shoot the ‘A’ gap and howl as Devonta Freeman fails to turn the corner.
This is something Clowney can do, but it’s not what he should be doing. It’s a fine mix-up on obvious run situations to load up the box like nachos and overwhelm teams with a backup quarterback on first and ten. But Clowney is at his best playing as a hand-down defensive end controlling one gap.
Last season, he primarily played the strong-side defensive end as a 6i, the inside shade of a tight end. When he lined up on the weakside here and there, he’d play as an outside shade of the tackle.
Against the run, Clowney can play typical run defense. The things taught in middle school. Attack the outside half of the blocker. Move the line of scrimmage backwards. Sit. Find the football.
Los Angeles is running dart right against Seattle’s 6-1, or tilt front, the mythological one that held the Rams to three points in the Super Bowl. Clowney is the strong side end, playing as an outside shade of the tackle. The Rams are running dart right, which means they are pulling left tackle Andrew Whitworth (#77) to kick out the edge defender and open up the alley for Todd Gurley. It’s a desperate attempt to get the ball on the edges against Seattle’s front.
The ghost motion widens out the contain defender. This responsibility now falls on Clowney. Tyler Higbee (#89) zone steps inside, but he misses his landmark and hits Clowney’s inside shoulder. Jadeveon punches and extends Higbee, sits on the outside half, and moves him backwards. Whitworth pulls flat behind the line of scrimmage and can’t get around Higbee’s block. Instead he goes through him, taking him out with friendly fire, allowing Clowney to loop around the block and make the tackle for a loss.
This is a similar play, except this time the Steelers are running power to the left, with the backside guard pulling to Mychal Kendricks (#56). The first play-side double team gets to the middle linebacker. Clowney is left with Alejandro Villanueva (#78) to himself.
He steps with his left foot, reads the power step, and bounces wide to get to Villanueva’s outside half. Clowney is known for his barbarian athleticism, but his ability to read his keys and recognize plays is among the best in the league. From there, Clowney punches the outside half of the tackle and stands him up. This is textbook. He can now sit, peek, and play the ball.
Even when Clowney takes on the entirety of a blocker, he has the strength to overwhelm them. This time he’s an outside shade of the left guard (Ramon Foster #73). He punches him with two hands and takes on all of him. Despite this, he’s still able to sit and make the run tackle. Most defensive tackles can’t pull this off.
All of this is fine. All of this is important. But these plays aren’t what add flayed human ears to Clowney’s necklace. It’s the negative plays that add to his bone collection. In order to take advantage of this smoke monster that teleports around blockers, the Seahawks would have Clowney slant to the inside gap and get in the backfield, where he could then pursue ball carriers.
The Packers learned early on the only way for them to carry out their balanced offensive attack was to run away from Clowney or save their run plays for whenever he was off the field and wheezing. They had no luck running at him for the entirety of their Divisional Round match-up.
Green Bay is running outside zone right. Clowney atypically slants away from his down hand and gets into the inside gap. The right tackle’s (#68) aiming point is Clowney’s outside shoulder. There can’t be any misses. There can’t be any mistakes. There’s no chance at recovery. Against Clowney, blockers have to take perfect steps and get their head on the perfect spot. There’s no room for error. Clowney wriggles into the ‘B’ gap, bounces off the guard, and makes the red zone tackle for a loss.
Clowney is on the backside of the play this time and still has the same dramatic effect on it by slanting to the inside gap. The Eagles are running inside zone right. The tight ends have a wider split than the rest of the offensive line does as a way to try and widen the ends and make it harder for them to make a play.
Dallas Goedert (#88) can’t hit the inside shoulder against this slant. Boston Scott (#35) faces the following dilemma when he receives the hand-off. Hit the interior and try to run past Clowney, or take this thing out wide.
He bails, bounces it outside and back to Egypt, and is quickly scooped up the cornerback. The box score doesn’t register this. There’s no tackle seen here. No tackle for a loss. Five easy yards becomes a loss because of Clowney.
These slants are a nice, schemed thing. It’s a cute little strategy that make blocks a nightmare. These don’t hold a candle to Clowney’s black hooded swim move, a vicious necromancy that snuffs out entire plays. Against single blocks, Clowney consistently murders scrubs, starters, and perennial Pro Bowl players by leaping wide out of stance, planting, and swimming to the opposite direction. His swim move is a scythe that chops down all life.
This time he’s one-on-one against Jason Peters (#71).
And then immediately finds the ball carrier after carrying out this deranged dance.
Blockers routinely lunge and miss Clowney when he breaks out this wild swim move. He morphs into some smoke that’s impossible to hold, let alone punch the center of.
Clowney’s swim can take a variety of different shapes and forms. He can use it in the middle of two blockers and maneuver around double teams with it.
He can use it in one fluid free style motion after timing the snap to teleport over the blocker.
He can quickly bounce wide of the blocker and morph into a red cape.
And he can swim with either arm, in either direction, and get outside and around a block with it.
Of all the vile and wicked actions Clowney unleashes against an offense, the most diabolical one is what he does against pullers.
The 49ers are running trap left here to kick out Clowney with the left guard and have the fullback leading the back through the hole.
Jadeveon reads the strong play-side double team. He hops over the down block, flattens, and catches the puller, Michael Person (#68). Clowney hits the inside shoulder of the guard, obliterating him and knocking him off the block. With space and extension, Clowney drives Person down the line of scrimmage and suffocates the hole.
Atlanta is running split zone to the left. They have play side tight end Austin Hooper pulling to the back side to seal Clowney from making a tackle.
This isn’t a business decision. This is a life decision. Clowney runs right around the pull and still manages to yank Freeman down from behind.
And here, on a pass attempt, where the guard is pulling to really sell it, Clowney beats the guard out of his pull and ends up taking on both the guard and the back. This forces Lamar Jackson to then go and do Lamar Jackson things, like casually scramble past three defenders and split the sea from the sky.
Even on the back side of plays, Clowney can demoralize a rushing attack. Outside designed plays away from him are never safe. Consistently, he gets his head inside of the tight end’s block, flattens along the line of scrimmage like a demonic mouse, and chases ball carriers from behind.
No matter where you are running to, no matter where Clowney is lined up, no matter what devices you have drawn up on your whiteboard, in the run game, Clowney is coming from you. The film shows this. 7 tackles for a loss doesn’t.
In the passing game, Clowney has the same amount of destructive impact. Constantly swimming, shoving, slanting, and regurgitating the quarterback into the ravenous mouths of his teammates, like some great carnivorous bird. This cannot be be seen in the form of his Pro Football Reference Player page. 13 quarterback hits. 4 sacks.
Clowney rushes the passer differently compared to most edge rushers. He thrives in close quarters. He isn’t the typical jet edge rusher who yanks down the chest, rips around the edge, and catapults flat to the quarterback. Instead he uses herky-jerky movement to screw with the tackle’s punch timing and attacks from there.
Here the Eagles are in the red zone. It’s Clowney against Peters on first and ten. Jadeveon leaps out of stance and recognizes the pass by the steps Peters takes. This hyperactive sideways movement makes it difficult for tackles to time their punch and make contact first. Instead, Clowney has Peters’ chest. From there he bullrushes, extends him, and rips off the block once he’s at the proper depth. Of course, Josh McCown steps up in the pocket away from the sack and tosses one into a hot dog.
By constantly shifting his shoulders, Clowney changes the tackle’s target. Time and time again, he’s able to use this to control blocks and then use this advantage to overwhelm them with the strength he was blessed with.
Mike McGlinchey (#69) can’t strike his chest. Instead he places his arms on Clowney’s shoulders, like they’re waltzing at a romantic winter ball. Again, Clowney bullrushes the tackle, but this time instead of ripping wide, he long arms to extend McGlinchey and creates a path to the quarterback. There he sticks his inside arm out and knocks the ball away. Seattle recovers.
Those same slants and swims in the run game work in the pass game. Clowney’s inside moves are a witch doctor’s brew.
Against McGlinchey again, Clowney steps inside at the tackle’s power step and then bounces off it to swim around the block. A quick play action pass play becomes impossible to complete. Clowney leaps like a serial killing lion and forces Jimmy Garoppolo to clutch the throw. Al Woods huffs and puffs from behind to pick up the sack. How much is a pressure really worth?
Insane athleticism counters the slants and inside moves. Jadeveon can do things no one has ever done before. Like fake the slant inside, pop wide, swim over the outside shoulder, and get after the quarterback. There’s a reason Joe Staley (#74) retired this offseason.
Clowney can rush wide as well, and out there, he doesn’t do it in typical fashion either. These aren’t outside shoulder rips. Instead he prefers to drive the inside shoulder, time and toss the blocker’s punch, and create an inside rush lane. These inside rushes create a quicker path to the quarterback than those long, exhaustive, wide ones do.
Clowney is a jet edge against right tackle Rob Havenstein (#79) here. Both the right guard and tackle are blocking man on man, creating an enormous swath of space in the ‘B’ gap. The tackle kick-slides to meet Clowney head on as he’s supposed to do, but he doesn’t have the ability to stone Clowney with his punch or quickly bounce back inside to stop this inside rush. Clowney’s punch meets Havenstein’s at the same time. Clowney wins out. He goes through the back, tosses acid into Jared Goff’s eyes, and forces him to throw a dropped interception into Ziggy Ansah’s tummy.
It’s the same punch timing and inside lane creation in this clip. This time it comes against Staley (#74).
The same swim move works to the inside as well. All Andre Smith (#71) can do is grab Clowney from behind like a screaming piggy.
Even Ronnie Stanley (#79) caught one from it.
The Seahawks didn’t use Clowney as an interior rusher as much as the Texans did in 2018. The drunken master snap-timing and dive bombing into the center wasn’t utilized too often. But occasionally, Clowney would line up over the guard, take on half of him, and create interior pressure as well. The rushes look the same. They just arrived from a different place against a wider body.
Most of his Seattle interior pressure came on loops back to the interior. He’d punch the tackle to create separation, allow the pass rush get into place, and then run through the brush to the center of the pocket, forcing the quarterback to sling it ahead of schedule and in a state of confusion.
In the run and pass game, from a quantifiable production standpoint, life is a series of almosts for Jadeveon Clowney. Missed sacks. Out of control tackle attempts. Clowney saws the neck of an offense without fully being able to decapitate it. The handle breaks off his saw. Quarterbacks scamper away with their heads dangling like loose teeth. Jet sweep backs see a flash of light and burst back into reality.
The Texans’ front seven was worse without Clowney last season. But not only that, Sundays were less enjoyable without Clowney around. Life was less interesting. Psychopathic criminal profiles became baby cartoons. “Live, Laugh, Kill” became “Live, Laugh, Let the quarterback hold onto the ball for seven seconds.” Houston’s defense created less negative plays, less car wrecks, less snapped bones. There wasn’t enough blood spilled by the defense last season.
Watching Clowney is a joyful experience. Hidden under the rubble of almost sacks and soul-stealing shaman destruction are obscene little plays that may not negatively impact the end result of the play, yet at the same time, they are hilarious and make the game more interesting, enriching the life of the viewer.
Hell, even all the offsides penalties are worth it because of Clowney’s existential reactions.
Clowney is still a free agent and has entered the workout-posting portion of his free agency. There are numerous reasons for Clowney’s current lack of employment. There’s kind of a pandemic going on, and teams who may be interested can’t plod, preen and complete their physicals, which is all due diligence required to ensure Clowney’s injury history won’t affect his immediate future—despite the fact that he’s missed only four games the past two seasons. Reports have been filed that Clowney wanted $20 million per year and is now stuck at $17-$18 million a year, allegedly willing to hang out and wait until Cleveland realizes Myles Garrett isn’t enough if Olivier Vernon gets hurt, or the Titans find out Kamalei Correa’s athletic ability has plateaued, or if the Eagles decide to create an absolute death squad. It’s a long summer.
Although there are computers in front offices and calculators in the coach’s film den, teams still struggle to understand the value a player like Clowney has on a defense. The numbers don’t match the film. It’s impossible to convey the relentless impact Clowney makes. Because of this, no matter how much of an impossible to block destructive force Clowney is, or how he completely changes the front seven by creating negative run plays that put passing offenses in longer downs and distances, or how Clowney pressuring the quarterback creates sacks for others, he’s still undervalued and unappreciated by the NFL as a whole.
Some team sometime soon is going to give into Clowney’s demands, and the team that does will celebrate this fall for years to come.