For better or worse, J.J. Watt and Tyron Smith will always be linked together. Both were top picks in the same draft, and both have turned into top NFL performers at their respective positions. Indeed, for many people J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the game today, and a legitimate MVP candidate.
While most Cowboy's fans are more than happy with the Tron pick, there is no denying that we are rightfully worried about J.J. Watt in this Sunday's game. Let's look at the tape and see how exactly Watt is so dominant, and what, if anything, an offense can do about it.
He Can Beat You With Power: As you would expect from a 3-4 defensive end, Watt is incredibly strong, and he can dominate offensive linemen through sheer power, as seen below:
Watt is identified pre-snap with the yellow arrow. An interesting note, and something we'll see quite often studying the Texans...they will use only two traditional down linemen and have four front seven players in a two point stance.
Watt is going to engage his blocker and keep his pad level low. Pay attention to his hand placement; he has both hands in the offensive lineman's chest, and his arms inside the lineman's.
Watt then uses his strength to, in effect, bench press the opposing offensive lineman, clearing himself of the block and creating separation:
That separation is all that Watt needs to get to the quarterback:
He Can Win With Speed: A lot of 3-4 defensive ends are powerful. What really sets Watt apart is that he is also quick; he can beat you with power and chase down the QB, or he can beat you with speed and get the sack. Below we'll see Watt use his superior quickness to beat his man inside:
Above we see a fairly vanilla 3-4 look with Watt lined up head up on the guard. Instead of 2-gapping, or taking the guard straight on while being responsible for the gap on either side (as is customary in traditional 3-4s), Watt is going to shoot to the inside gap:
Look at the guard's feet, (red arrow). J.J. has already made it to the guard's inside shoulder before the guard has even had a chance to get into his set. This turns into an easy win for Watt:
The guard doesn't even have a chance to block him. His arms are curled underneath Watt's body; the only protection the quarterback has at this moment is the guard's ability to curl J.J. Watt.
He Can Beat You With Intelligence and Play Design: If his physical tools weren't enough, Watt is also an intelligent player, and the Texans take advantage of that through the use of games and stunts. Next we'll look at a pretty basic crossing stunt; what makes it so interesting is how Watt sets everything up.
Again we see the Texans with only two down lineman (Watt is the yellow arrow, the other lineman is identified by the red arrow), with Watt playing on the outside shoulder of the tackle.
The tackle kicks out to take the OLB, leaving Watt on the guard's outside shoulder, and the other Texans DT pushing hard inside on the center.
Here's where it gets interesting. After looking like he was engaging the guard's outside shoulder, Watt instead crosses the guard's face inside. Meanwhile, the other DT has crashed hard coming the other way, bringing the center along with him. In effect they are acting like a pick on the guard.
The end result is the guard and center double teaming the crashing DT while Watt loops around home free. An added bonus, another rusher is also coming free, leaving Buffalo's running back having to choose which defender to block.
Not every defensive lineman could make that play. Watt could have stayed disengaged the whole time, which would have alerted the guard to the stunt. It also takes a player with speed to make this play successful as it's rather slow developing.
He Can Beat the Double Team: Did I mention that all those plays above happened in the first four defensive snaps for Houston? After seeing their potential franchise quarterback being killed by a monster, the Bills braintrust decided that it might be a good idea to double said monster. It didn't matter:
Here we see another two down lineman scheme, this time with both DT's head up over the guards. That means we've got three blockers for two rushers...favoring the Bills.
Watt negates that advantage by pushing hard to the guard's outside shoulder. The center wisely opted to double team Watt but can't reach him; Watt's speed enables him to get too far upfield, effectively using the guard as a shield against the center's double team.
This is how ridiculous it is for the Bills. Right now they have five blockers taking on three rushers and losing. The center isn't blocking anyone, and J.J. is overpowering the guard. The running back, who is initially a blocker, realizes he's not doing any good and wisely decides to go out as a release.
Now Watt has cleared his man and is bearing down for the kill. But the QB has an out with the running back releasing...with a whole lot of space in front of him.
A good quarterback makes this play. The running back has a ton of room in front of him, and this could be a big gain. Tony Romo has the instincts and quick release to get rid of the ball here and lead the running back into the open space. Unfortunately E.J. Manuel is not Tony Romo.
It's a horrible play by the QB. But what set it all up is J.J. Watt's strong outside shoulder push that effectively neutralized the Bills double team.
I've shown you four plays so far in which J.J. Watt dominated the Bills. Amazingly enough, these were all among the first five plays of the game (many Dallas fans would be happy for a DL to have this much impact all game, let alone in five plays). The fourth play however, should have given Buffalo some idea of how to counter J.J. Watt.
Struggles Against the Run: It's not that Watt is a bad run defender. Here we see another two down lineman formation this time with Watt head up on the tackle.
Next we'll see that Watt has easily beaten the block, and is great position to make a tackle in the backfield:
What we see here is the same issue that Dallas struggles with on the line; the defensive line is so concerned about penetration and getting upfield they go too far upfield and allow RB's to cut back underneath them:
So How Do You Beat Him? Watt can win with speed or power, he stunts a lot and can split double teams. How exactly do you win against him? The answer to that may have come from an unlikely source, the New York Giants.
Put Him In Coverage: You may have not heard, but last week J.J. had an interception return for a touchdown. An interception return! Watt is such a unique athlete that the Texans will drop him in coverage, or even ask him to cover RB's coming out of the flats. The Giants took advantage of that on their very first snap. Which is smart, a play when Watt is dropping back is a play where he can't kill your QB.
Here we see Watt lined up on the outside of the tackle Justin Pugh.
The Giant's do two interesting things here. First, they attempt a cut block on Watt (something we'll see again). Second, they run a receiver into the flats. The cut block misses Watt, who drops back into coverage.
See that around Eli? It's a clean pocket.
Run the Ball: On the second play of the game we see the Texans come out in the same formation:
This time there is no dropping back into coverage for Watt; he comes charging upfield and hard, attacking the outside of the tackle with speed.
And the Giants let him. They don't even block him. He's five yards upfield and the guard hasn't even engaged a defender yet. Of course the play is going right by him. To add insult to injury, the running back cut blocks him for good measure.
Keep Running: The above play worked so well the Giants decided to run again. Below we see the Texans in a type of 4-3 (possibly Wide 9?), with Watt lined up outside the TE.
The Giants are again going to basically let Watt run himself right out of the play. If Watt has one real weakness, it's his tendency to overrun plays. On both this play and the play before Watt could have crashed down the line and made a stop. Instead we see this:
See the red line? At this point Watt is about 2 yards deep and beginning to "bend" around the corner.
Here he is another yard or two deep, even with the running back. But he hasn't even started working down the line yet. That inability to "bend" around the corner might be the only shortcoming in Watt's game.
And Run At Him!: Watt isn't just vulnerable to plays running by him. The Giants also used his aggressiveness against him by running at him.
Here Watt is playing weakside end in a traditional 4-3 front. At the snap he's going to crash inside hard.
This enables the tackle to "hook" Watt inside and seal him off. Getting Watt "in the scrum" like this neutralizes a lot of his physical advantages. The result is a wide open edge for the running back and a big gain.
Make Him React Instead of Act: After the game Justin Pugh came out and said he thought that Watt had given up. I'm not sure that's the case. The Giants threw a lot at Watt...forcing him into coverage, cut blocks, letting him run upfield then running underneath him. This constant change up forced Watt to hesitate and process what was going on. We can see that here:
Two things stand out in this picture. One, Watt isn't engaged yet. I know none of the other Texans are either, but generally Watt is the quickest off the line and into his rush. The second is that Watt is almost standing straight up. This was a known passing situation with an offense in the shotgun, but instead of exploding out of his snap, Watt hesitates and stands up to process the situation.
Here Watt has engaged but there are a few things to point out. He's taken his man straight on, instead of attacking the inside or outside shoulder. Also his arms are wide and extended; he has no leverage. This is not a pass rush engagement; this is how you would set up to 2-gap, or read and react.
Now we see Watt finally getting into his pass rush. By this time however, Eli is set up and surveying the field and the running back is ready to block.
WHAT'S IT MEAN FOR DALLAS?
A lot of what Dallas likes to do actually play into Watt's "weaknesses" (I put that in quotations because Watt really doesn't have any, but there are some things he's less good at). DeMarco Murray is a patient runner who is really good at cutbacks and setting up his blocks; he will have opportunities to bait Watt upfield and cut back underneath him. We'll also explore the edge to his side; if Watt cheats inside our line and tight ends are athletic enough to hook him and get Murray to the corner.
Sooner or later however, we're going to have to throw the ball, and that's where we could get in trouble. Dallas likes to leave the tackles on an island, and that's not something we're going to be able to do against J.J.. When he lines up inside he is quick enough to give our guards problems, and as shown above, smart enough to avoid the double team from Fredbeard. Murray is one of the best running backs in the game at pass protection and he's going to need to be on his A-game Sunday.
Watt is going to get his. He's too good a player to be contained all game. But if Dallas can commit to the run early, avoid obvious passing situations, and make Watt think instead of just rush, then we'll be in good shape.
What do you think BtB? Can our offense handle J.J. Watt or will he derail our winning streak?