Few tasks are harder in the NFL than diffusing Watt of the Houston Texans. The two-time defensive player of the year forces opposing offenses to devise game plans around him in an effort to contain his disruptive ways. Brian Filipiak says that teams know they need to use almost every tactic to have a chance at slowing down Watt.
Capping off his 2015 regular season with an electrifying performance, J.J. Watt recorded three sacks in Week 17 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, finishing with a total of 17.5 sacks to lead the NFL – edging out Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack (15 sacks). The likely soon-to-be four-time first-team All-Pro also tied for the league lead with 16 run stuffs – opponent rush attempts resulting in a tackle for a loss – with St. Louis Rams outside linebacker / safety Mark Barron. Watt recorded at least one sack in ten of his 16 games, even though his production was hampered by a broken hand down the stretch.
Always difficult to contain no matter how many bodies thrown his way, Watt was held in check on only a handful of occasions during the regular season. In particular, both the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots demonstrated how a varied, relentless and all-hands-on-deck approach can neutralize even someone as consistently dominant as Watt. In three games against the Colts and Patriots, the defensive lineman was limited to nine tackles – 5 solo, 4 assists, and zero sacks – with just two recorded hits on the quarterback.
Leaving an offensive lineman in a completely isolated one-on-one situation against Watt is rarely a good idea. As a result, few edge defenders see more double teams than Watt, with teams, such as the Colts, using unbalanced formations with multiple inline tight ends to his side:
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In the first clip, the duo attacks off the snap, with Allen taking a quick lead step to close off the gap to his inside, pinning Watt between him and Doyle. The two blockers latch onto the nearest shoulder available to them and force Watt to escape further outside with a spin move where he can do no damage.
Watt – as he does so often – quickly adjusts against the same look on the second play. First, he aligns with a slight shade over Doyle’s outside shoulder, providing him with more room to work with off the snap. Watt slow plays penetration into the D gap, waiting for Allen to commit. Once the tight end opens up to engage, Watt uses a swim move to evade the blocker and slants into the C gap. However, Allen appears to get away with a hold on Watt, giving Doyle enough time to recover and clear the defender.
Strategy Downside: Double teaming Watt, particularly off play action, is not exactly rocket science. But doing so with two tight ends limits the pass options for the QB to just two wide receivers and the running back getting out of the backfield late.
In a similar vein, the Patriots used heavy formations that utilized an extra offensive lineman to match up with Watt in the running game. In the play below, New England uses a counter running play to the strength of their alignment:
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Right tackle Marcus Cannon (#61) and reserve offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (#71) attempt to work a combination block against Watt – who is aligned as a 5 technique. On the surface, it appears to be a successful effort by the jumbo-sized pairing, with Watt collapsing to the ground. However, it’s more likely an intentional decision in an effort to delay the blocker from climbing to the second level quicker. Shielded by Watt, inside linebacker Brian Cushing (#56) flows to the ball and makes the tackle after a six-yard gain.
Within the confines of the defensive game plan, Watt did his job as a block eater on this particular play. But since he is most dangerous on his feet, opposing teams will take the tradeoff. Using two bodies against Watt on running plays directed to his side is a basic formality.
Strategy Downside: Inserting an extra offensive lineman to help deal with Watt removes an offensive weapon, limits formations, and pre-snap movements/adjustments, while also curbing play call flexibility.
Keep Chipping Away
While dedicating two blockers on Watt is a common strategy, it’s not a compromise that can be used for every situation. Downs, distances and different defensive fronts dictate different tactics and scheme. One constant for the Colts, however, was using tight ends and running backs to chip Watt at almost every opportunity, providing at least partial help for the offensive line:
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Indianapolis deploys a compressed formation with Allen in a tight slot alignment just outside of Watt. Off the snap, instead of releasing right into his route, Allen steps into Watt’s path and knocks the defender to the ground before running a seam pattern down the field. Watt quickly jumps to his feet only to be faced with two unoccupied offensive lineman.
Often, we hear the importance of not giving a tight end a free release off the line of scrimmage. The same can be said of Watt when he is rushing the passer from a wide technique. When the opportunity arises because of formation and/or availability of a running back / tight end, disrupting Watt’s pass rush lane with a chip block can slow him down and give a boost to the offensive lineman assigned to take him on.
Strategy Downside: Chips or other block and release routes typically remove that receiver as a first or even second read for the quarterback on the play.
Choosing not to block Watt at the point of attack may not seem like a good idea, but trap block concepts – such as on power running plays that use backside pulls or frontside fold blocks – can be a deceptive tactic that gains favorable angles against the defensive MVP.
Here, the Colts execute a power run out of the shotgun that utilizes left guard Jack Mewhort (#75) on a pull technique:
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Usually, the backside guard on a pull block will lead up into the hole, wrapping around to the first defender he sees – most often the playside linebacker. But the Colts use an altered approach, instead laying the trap for Watt as right guard Hugh Thornton (#69) opens the gate into the B gap with a soft kick set, which also sells a potential pass play. The defender takes the invitation as right tackle Joe Reitz (#76) does his best Watt imitation by executing a swim move into the second level. Failing to recognize the signs of a trap being set, Watt is met by Mewhort and removed from impacting the play.
Strategy Downside: Giving Watt free access into the backfield is a risky proposition for obvious reasons. The playside offensive linemen need to sell the play extremely well, and the backside puller can’t be slow – or disaster will follow.
Additionally, trap blocks need to be well-timed and not overused. Case in point:
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On the first play, the Patriots utilize a pull block from the fullback position to eliminate the initially unblocked Watt on the backside of the run direction. On the very next play, Watt – again left unblocked – recognizes the pulling tight end and snakes past the blocker to track down the play from behind.
Win, Lose or Draw
Taking advantage of weak side draw plays toward Watt is a potential avenue for success, specifically when the defender is aligned wide of the offensive tackle in a 9 technique, such as on this shotgun run by the Colts shown below:
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Reitz uses a short kick slide out of his stance as his main concern – unbeknownst to Watt – is protecting the inside gap. Caught in pass rush mode, Watt takes a wide angle around the right tackle, ultimately playing into the hands of the offense on the draw play to his side. Delayed runs out of passing formations and on passing downs/distances like this one can exploit Watt’s aggressive tendencies in pass rushing situations.
Strategy Downside: Generally, a limited safe play in longer yardage situations in which the defense is pinning their ears back off the edges expecting a pass. This approach would better suit a read-option offense.
Slide This Way
In pass protection, teams will often shift the wealth of their blockers to Watt’s side. In the following pass protection scheme used by the Patriots, the offensive line – starting from the left guard – slides right:
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From his head up position over the right tackle, Watt slants across right guard Tre’ Jackson (#63) off the snap, using a swim move in an attempt to breach the A gap. However, center Bryan Stork (#66) – as part of the half-slide protection – is able to hook Watt as he enters his area / gap. At a certain point, there are essentially four blockers grappling with Watt on the play-action pass.
Strategy Downside: This particular double tight end formation uses eight in pass protection, but half-slides of this nature normally pit the man-side in true one-on-one situations. Devoting extra attention to Watt provides opportunities for his teammates to win in isolation. The play above, for instance, leaves outside linebacker / defensive Jadeveon Clowney (#90) against tight end Michael Williams (#85) – a match up the defender easily wins.
Hit Him… Then Hit Him Again
Then, of course, there is the simple approach: hit him… then hit him again. As previously touched upon, there may be no better method than treating Watt similar to how defenses handle Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Sure enough, New England did just that by limiting Watt’s “clean releases” as a pass rusher when aligned wide of the offensive tackle:
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Operating out of a split-back formation in shotgun, running back Brandon Bolden (#38) – from his offset position on Watt’s side – angles into the path of the defender, redirecting him into the right tackle with a quick body check. Knocked off his original pass rush landmark, Watt then immediately takes a second – much more powerful – body blow from Jackson that plants him on the ground.
It often takes a village to block Watt. Though at times, seemingly not even a metropolis can get the job done. Whether it’s straight-up double-teams or well-timed trap blocks or using running backs and tight ends to clutter pass rush lanes, keeping the Texans off-kilter is a critical step in diffusing J.J. Watt and the Houston defense.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.
Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.