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The Film Room: J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, And The Texans’ Run Defense

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

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Part One: J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and the Texans’ Pass Rush

There’s a litany of reasons why the Texans went from 0-3 to 6-3. Jadeveon Clowney joined the pass rush and Houston’s rush jumped up from 29th to 15th in pressure rate. Deshaun Watson stopped turning the ball over and giving horrendous offenses short fields. Bill O’Brien made subtle scheme changes: more play action, utilization of Watson as a runner until his lungs exploded, jet sweeps, misdirection run plays, play action passes, downfield throws minus the Denver game, roll outs, chipping the edges to help the tackles, and scheming to get DeAndre Hopkins easy receptions. Better personnel decisions to get more talented younger players on the field like Jordan Thomas, Jordan Akins, Justin Reid, and playing Juli’en Davenport at his correct position, left tackle. But to me, the biggest reason, has been the schedule aligning perfectly with Houston’s defensive strength.

The best cornerback Houston has is 34 years old and is now injured. Something called a Natrell Jamerson is playing meaningful snaps. Shareece Wright is a second cornerback who’s best skill is knocking the ball out of the receiver’s hands after he’s already been beat. Great offenses would be able to spread Houston out and pull the zipper on the back of the plastic monster costume. Houston hasn’t had to play teams who can do this though. The best offense they played was the Colts, who average 28.9 points scored a game thanks to blowouts against the Raiders and Bills, and have an offensive DVOA of 3.4%, 14th.

What has worked in Houston’s favor is each one of these offenses has to run the ball, and their pass offenses are malodorous. Aside from Andrew Luck who lost T.Y. Hilton early on, each one of these teams lacks either a quarterback, the wide receivers, or both who can take advantage of Houston’s cornerback situation. The Texans have faced only 50 downfield passes this season, the 27th most in football. The best receiver they played during this run was, DeVante Parker? Zay Jones? Emmanuel Sanders? Donte Moncrief? Instead opponents were stuck running the ball at Houston’s greatest strength, their run defense, a run defense that’s first in run defense DVOA at -31.9%, is allowing only 3.6 yards a carry (T-1st), and is first in expected points contributed with 38.52.

Like the Texans’ pass offense that’s led by Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt rushing the passer, the run defense is also brutalizing offensive line with these two denizens of the backfield. Watt has 21 run tackles, ball carriers are picking up 0.8 yards a carry on his tackles, and has 11 tackles for 0 yards or less. Clowney has 16 run tackles, ball carriers are picking up -1.08 yards a carry on his tackles, and has 8 tackles for 0 yards or less.

There’s no escaping them either. When teams run up the middle, both Watt and Clowney have the ability to either make a play on the ball or squeeze things back to the interior of the line of scrimmage. This is as ambiguous of a look Houston can give. Clowney is the ‘9’ leaning and blitzing off the edge when the ball is snapped. Whitney Mercilus, Duke Ejiofor, and Benardrick McKinney are standing over the inside gaps with Zach Cunningham staggered behind. Tyrann Mathieu is lurking in a robber position to clean up the trash. The Colts are running the inside zone, a nice play call for this defensive formation. The big problem is Watt and Clowney are blocked individually. Without a strong double team at either one, this is doom.

By blitzing off the edge Clowney is able to create momentum and drive the inside shoulder all the way to the football, slowing down the back, and just barely missing. Watt uses his patented swim over right tackle Denzel Good, climbs around the outside, plants, and comes all the way back to the ball to make the tackle.

The only real hope to run the ball against Houston, is to run the ball at either Watt or Clowney and get solid hip to hip double teams that negate them, or use misdirection to bring them upfield and run around them. Running at either one of them is an impossible thing to do. A successful play is cutting back inside and picking up four yards before being taken down by one of Houston’s inside linebackers.

Despite Case Keenum reverting back to his career means in sack and interception rates, the Broncos have one of the best run offenses in football, something that may deteriorate with the injury to Matt Paradis. The Broncos are running the outside zone to the left.

They cover everyone up well, move to the second level and gets hats on hats, and even roll Watt inside. What they don’t do is block Clowney. Matched up with left tackle Garret Bolles, Clowney takes a slight step wide, jams is his foot, and cuts inside of him, forcing running back Phillip Lindsey right into McKinney.

The defense has done a great job cleaning up the mess these two make. Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, and Kareem Jacksonhave 44, 38, and 27 run tackles. This clean up allows both defenders to play aggressive and search and destroy, instead of playing the outside shoulder, sit, and wait for the ball carrier, each of one of these defenders can hunt the ball carrier.

Running away from them doesn’t guarantee security. In fact, it almost works to the offense’s detriment. By running away from either player the offense usually ends up with a tight end attempting to block Watt or Clowney by themselves. This almost never works. Typically it ends up with Watt swimming over the top, planting, getting flat to the line of scrimmage and coming back to the football.

Or Clowney doing the exact same thing.

The outside zone is nearly impossible to run against Houston with any success. At the defensive end position, faced with a singular blocker, both players have the skill to shed the block instantly, and the athleticism to come from the backside and make plays on the ball.

Inside zone plays typically work better, especially when the backside tackle can stab the inside gap and hinge to wall off the backside defensive end. It creates true double teams on the playside. Throwing an additional body at both defenders is favorable, but it’s far from a consistent answer.

When Watt reads the run, he opts to swim. It’s quick, and leads to the offensive lineman stumbling forwards, and him with an unobstructed gap. It leads to plenty of run stops, and is effective against double teams. When contact is made in unison, Watt can swim around one blocker and come into the chest of another. On this play, he gets by the tight end immediately, and comes into the second blocker. Instead of flowing to the second level, as the play is typically drawn up, the drunkard goes back to block Watt and wall him off from Lindsey. This allows Mike Tyson to go unblocked and put out a run block that was blocked well everywhere else.

The problem with focusing on the individual blocker, and coming into the second blocker as an aftershock from the swim, is it leaves the side exposed. When the punches aren’t timed perfectly, plays like the previous one occur. But even when Watt gets blocked by the second one, the first is left falling over himself. This prevents the double team from getting to the second level.

The Broncos are running counter in the redzone. The Texans are in a 5-2 front with Shareece Wright down in the box. Denver has left guard Max Garcia (#76) pulling to the playside linebacker, and the tight end Tim Patrick (#81) pulling into the alley to pickup the first defender who shows up. The BIG playside double team needs to block Watt to Brian Peters. On the whiteboard, the double team drives Watt all the way to the second level, in reality this will never happen. The rest of the line blocks down to allow the pullers to run freely.

Right tackle Jared Veldheer (#66), gets to the inside half of Watt as he’s supposed to. When he attempts to make contact, Watt raises his arm and swims over the top. The greatest tight end of all time Jeff Heuerman hits the hole in the armor exposed and washes Watt inside. Veldheer is in a washing machine. He’s rolling around on the ground. The linebacker is free. When he gets to the hole he has two defenders to block. Since Lindsey has two options on this play, follow Garcia through the ‘B’ gap, or break it wide and follow Patrick, Garcia doesn’t block either one. Lindsey is forced to break it wide right where Mercilus has the entire outside half of the blocker gobbled up.

This is precisely why Watt can swim nearly every time he reads the run the run. It allows him to shed an individual block and tackle the ball carrier, and creates chaos for double teams. Usually, at a minimum, one of the blockers goes tumbling and the second level is wild and free.

Here’s a similar play run by the Colts. It’s power to the strong side. Watt swims past the first blocker on the ‘Deuce’ and is obliterated by right tackle Braden Smith (#72). He takes out two blockers, but is on the ground, and vertical movement has been created. The key to this block is the timing to Smith’s punch. He hits Watt right as he’s sucking his gut in to sneak through the fence. Skinny, without power, he’s taken down easily. McKinney reads inside zone and gets caught in the wreckage. Mo Alie-Cox drives down the defensive end. The Colts pick up a big chunk.

The other benefit to using the swim move against run plays is it also can be used as a pass rush. When defensive linemen play the run with fundamentals, they have to adjust their movement, and turn restart to rush the passer. Turning sitting into a flurry of hands and bullrushes that’s easily negative. Swimming past blockers creates penetration. Around the first blocker the quarterback still has the ball. Watt can scamper after him to create havoc while others are hunkered down on the line of scrimmage.

Watching Watt play the run is a freestyle swim race. On the backside, against one v. one blocks, against double teams, it doesn’t matter, he’s stepping, jamming his foot, and swimming. Clowney is an entirely different superhuman. He instead uses inside-out movement that works so well as a pass rusher, to evaporate blocks entirely.

The Cowboys tried to run at Houston from the shotgun. They’d run inside zone at Clowney, liking the possibility of the terminator Tyron Smith in one on one blocks against Clowney, a true playside double team, and the backside blockers hinging against wide shades to create a barrier and seal off the backside of the play. 3 v. 3 in space.

Clowney sizes Smith up by chopping his feet and reading the backfield. He doesn’t make contact immediately and come directly into the great goliath. Smith is creakier than he’s been at earlier stages of his career. Yet, you still can’t let him get his hands on you, and he’s still an incredible pass blocker. Once Clowney sees the hand off, and the back coming his way, zoom, he cuts inside and around the block. At the tackle, he’s able to use one arm to swing the back down for a loss.

Here’s the inside zone again. Except this time it’s in the redzone. Clowney is matched up one v. one with Smith. He steps, and zips inside around the block. It’s another tackle for a loss.

Having Clowney read and react on the playside with ample space has been an easy way to create negative plays in the run game. Instead to make this a joyous occasional occasion, Romeo Crennel tries to manufacture it on his own. If the play is a run or pass, it doesn’t matter. Clowney can play as a stand up linebacker, and take off at the snap. Running past blocks, or through them, to collide into the backfield. La’Raven Clark is hinging against a backside linebacker while Clowney screams.

The best part of watching Clowney All-22 is when teams decide to pull at him. He doesn’t fall into the pit when he goes unblocked. Rather than run freely upfield and get ear holed, Clowney understands this play and uses this time to hunt offensive linemen down. It’s the world’s deadliest game.

Dallas is pulling each guard and blocking down from there. Clowney is a blur past the down blocking tight end. First he takes out Doug Martin. Then he takes out Connor Williams. Wright the alley defender, and Cunningham the backside linebacker are free to chase Ezekiel Elliot all the way to the sideline. Whatever you do, don’t pull at Clowney.

Crennel gives Watt and Clowney free reign to do whatever they want to make negative plays just as he should do. From there the rest of the defensive line attempts to hold the line of scrimmage, the linebackers fill in the gaps, and the safeties clean up the rest from there. It’s now always perfect. Typically, when you see a big run gain against Houston it’s because a linebacker didn’t fill in a correctly on a blitz, or misread the play in front of him because of how Watt and Clowney reacted to the ball, creating confusion.

Here Clowney slants inside to the ‘A’ gap from the defensive end position. Elliot is able to plant and cut wide, avoiding the impending tackle for a loss. Cunningham is supposed to play wide and replace Clowney. Instead he plays the double team on D.J. Reader. Elliot takes off around him and runs for the first.

This is livable, and is the outlier not the norm. These plays happen rarely. Typically the rest of the run plays against Houston move like cars staring at a wreck that occured on the opposite side of the highway. The run defense usually fills in well, and is the reason why Clowney and Watt can play like they do. On the rare instances when Clowney and Watt are succesfully blocked and shoved out of their gap, open holes are created. No one is around. It’s up to the safety to come down hill, fit in the hole, and make the tackle. Cunningham, McKinney, Jackson, and Justin Reid have been awesome at this.

The Texans also love to blitz their safeties off of Watt and Clowney to create negative run plays. Whether it’s from the strong side or weak side it doesn’t matter. Crennel will have Watt or Clowney shoot the inside gap. First of all, this is a nearly impossible block for the blocker. Even if he gets his head inside, both players are too powerful to really end it. The only hope is the slant inside takes the defender out of the play. This inside movement creates bedlam though. It allows Jackson, the best run tackling cornerback I’ve ever seen, to follow with a blitz of his own, and knock out the running back from there.

Jackson can suffocate cutbacks from the backside of the play.

Or dive bomb through the hole from the weak side of the formation.

Whether it’s Clowney or Watt, whether it’s the backside or playside of the play, it doesn’t matter. Jackson can turn himself into a missile, sprint through the holes in the line of scrimmage, and bombard the ball carrier.

The run defense is why the Texans are 6-3. Watt and Clowney are the integral reason why the Texans have the best run defense in football. These two combined, with an alignment of the stars, and multiple subtle offensive scheme changes that have made a dramatic difference have turned this season around. Here we are, four years later, it’s finally Watt and Clowney’s team.