Friday, December 18, 2015

J.J. Watt's Bid for His Third Defensive Player of the Year Award.

by John Turney

As Pro Football Journal's Nick Webster stated recently the only thing working against Watt winning his third defensive MVP is J.J. Watt. Said Webster, "I think Watt is suffering from Peyton Manning, Bill Belichick, even Mike Trout disease. You expect him to be the best, so unless what he does is otherworldly it isn't worthy of special consideration." And he is right, Watt is having a great year, it just is not up to the same level as 2012 and 2014.

Through 13 games in 2015 Watt was second in the NFL in sacks with 13.5 and second in the NFL in run/pass stuffs with 13, both excellent numbers. However, in 2012 and 2014 he had over 20 sacks and in 2014 he had 23.5 run/pass stuffs as well (in 2014 he had 13.5 run/pass stuffs).

So, while his current numbers do not pale in comparison, it can be understood that players who are having great seasons as well (Josh Norman and Aaron Donald to name two) will be given greater consideration. In fact, in the last few weeks someone can really make a mark for themselves by finishing strong.
JJ Watt. Artist: Bruce Tatman
Last Sunday night, on NBC's Sunday Night Football Cris Collinsworth, narrated a couple of graphics shown on the screen, documenting the percentage of times Watt has been double-teamed (and even triple-teamed) on run and pass plays this season. The research was provided by Pro Football Focus (PFF) and it showed some impressive numbers.  The graphics showed on running plays we had been doubled 24% of the time and on passing downs, he received extra attention on 46% of the plays.

The only issue was the lack of historical perspective. Forty-six percent sounds great, but what is the average? Who is next best in that category? Those would be rhetorical questions from viewers of the game who are interested in such esoteric things.

Now, for a little bit of that missing perspective, I can share a couple of research tidbits that Pro Football Journal has had in it's backlogs for a while. In 1998 Green Bay Packer defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur told Pro Football Weekly that Reggie White had been double-teamed 46% of the time on passing plays that season. Remember, that was the year White won his final Defensive Player of the Year Award. Interestingly, it is the same percentage as Watt this season, as per PFF.

Reggie White. Art by Merv Corning. NFL Pro Set.

That piqued my curiosity and I decided to take a look back at some old NFL games I had on videotape. In the 1980s, when the Los Angeles Raiders were playing and especially when Merlin Olsen was calling the game, it would be mentioned Howie Long's value to the Raider's defense and how he was a guy who did little things, drew holding calls, double teams that freed others to make big plays.
Howie Long. Credit: NFL Proline
Long had a duel role in that Raider defense. On likely run downs he was a 4-technique (head up on the offensive tackle) in a 3-4 defense, but in substitute defense, nickel and dime (which the Raiders called "bandit" and "desperado")  Long would play 3-technique (outside shoulder of the left guard). Greg Townsend would come into the game as the LDE and Bill Pickel would play the nose/shade position and Lyle Alzado would remain the right end.

Long's top seasons were probably 1983-84. I had 19 Raider games in my library so I went through them and tallied those little things. What I found was that Long had been double-teamed (includes any triple-teams) 41.2% of the time on passing downs in those select games. Not quite as high as White or Watt, but seemingly in the same ballpark. Long had 24 sacks (13 in 1983 and 11 in 1984) those two seasons and was All-Pro and a Pro Bowler in both.

Also, in 1983-84 the other left defensive end in Los Angeles, Jack Youngblood was going through a transition. He had to play in a true two-gap 3-4 defense under the aforementioned Fritz Shurmur. Youngblood had excelled for 12 seasons as a 4-3 left defensive end who traded on speed and quickness. Now, he had to play the same position as Long, with the exception of not moving inside on pass downs. The Rams nickel defense would call on Gary Jeter to come in and play right defensive tackle, so Youngblood could rush from his usual LDE spot on likely passing downs.
Jack Youngblood. Artist: Merv Corning. NFL Proline
My library had all the Rams games for those two seasons, including playoff games and I studied them. The results were very interesting. Youngblood drew quite a lot of penalties on opposing tackles, 53 in fact (includes some that were declined), the vast majority being holding calls or illegal use of hands, but some false starts. (John Madden would often mention false starts and say, for example, "Reggie White caused that false start because the tackle was worried about White's quickness). One note: Howie Long drew lots of penalties as well, not only from right tackles, but also right guards who had to take him on pass downs).

Youngblood, who was 33 and 34 for those two seasons, was not in his prime like when he was a 5-time All-Pro and perennial Pro Bowler in the mid-to-late 1970s (though he was a Pro Bowl alternate in 1983 and 1984). So, in addition to the new scheme he had to compensate for a natural decline in speed by increasing strength and working on his quickness through drills.

It seemed to pay off as he had 20 sacks for those two seasons (10.5 in 1983 and 9.5 in 1984) and on passing downs over those seasons, he was double-teamed 41.0% of the time, 39.9% in 1983 and 42.7% in 1984 (including playoff games).

So, in looking at what limited data available it seems that Watts 46% is a remarkably high percentage. Certainly, it would be great to know the percentage is for Lawrence Taylor or Bruce Smith or others, but it seems Watt is due a great amount of credit since the numbers bear out the anecdotal evidence that he's a guy that needs special blocking attention to slow him down.

One additional note in the Defensive MVP race is that PFJ has looked at Aaron Donald's 2015 season and in the first 14 weeks Aaron Donald drew a double-team on run downs of 39.5% of the snaps and on pass plays he drew a double 40.3% of the time. The percentage on run downs is higher than Watt and lower on passing plays, which could make the race even tighter. Donald also will likely have double-digit tackles for loss in the run game to go with his current 11 sacks, so he should get plenty of notice by the DPOY voters, at least he should in our view based on our eye test as well.

Follow PFJ on Twitter

1 comment:

  1. Nice article John. I hate stats absent context, see the election of Floyd Little to the Hall of Fame, so this is great, clearly Watt and Donald are receiving attention similar to what the all time greats have.