Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In the mold of Lawrence Taylor, the Texans’ J.J. Watt is redefining how defense is played in the NFL. And he’s doing it all by himself

By Jenny Vrentas
September 08, 2015

Not until after the 2014 football season was over did Bill O’Brien truly appreciate what he had just witnessed. Dating back to his stops at Penn State and New England, the Texans coach has abided by the same postseason tradition of creating a cut-up reel on each of his players. Though watching film on the entire 53-man roster takes him a few weeks each winter, he says it’s the best way to assess talent and dissect the effectiveness of his schemes. But this year it took a bit longer than usual.

Even for someone who once coached Tom Brady, O’Brien had never seen a highlight reel as long and as mesmerizing as J.J. Watt’s. “One-hundred-fifty, like, really good plays,” O’Brien says. “All the different ways he affected the game. That’s when it became clear to me: This guy had one hell of a year.”

There was Watt coming around the edge at full speed, bearing down on his quarterback prey of the week. There he was working inside, knifing across the guard’s face to stop a running back dead in his tracks. There he was finding the weak link on the offensive line and embarrassing the poor guy over and over.

Watt put himself in contention to be the first defensive MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. He didn’t win, but he still measured up to the Giants’ Hall of Famer. Taylor was a stand-up outside rusher, while Watt is a defensive end, but both were given the freedom to roam and make plays in a way that is reserved for a once-in-a-generation talent.

“He should have been MVP,” Lawrence Taylor said of J.J. Watt. “The great ones do it year in and year out ... if he stays healthy, he could be an all timer.”

In an email interview, Taylor explained how he earned the trust of his coaches: “Both Bills [Parcells and Belichick] came to me and made it clear: We’ll let you roam, but if you f--- it up, we go back to doing it our way. I never f---ed it up … And I’ll tell you this. Parcells and Belichick weren’t exactly the types of guys to have a player tell them how s--- should be run.”

Taylor essentially had carte blanche to line up wherever he thought he had the best chance to make a play, and the disorienting effect on offenses was not lost on Romeo Crennel, who coached special teams and then the defensive line on Parcells’ staff. So when Crennel arrived in Houston with O’Brien last year to be the Texans’ defensive coordinator, he gave Watt his blessing to move around wherever he wanted, with Taylor in mind.

“He could be here, he could be there, he could be anywhere. That’s one of the beauties of the call,” Crennel says. “The better the player is, the more successful it has been. So with a Lawrence Taylor and a J.J. Watt, it’s very successful.”

So successful that the results were almost historic: 20.5 sacks, 10 passes defensed and 119 total quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Watt earned 13 of 50 MVP votes—18 fewer than Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but still more than any other defensive player since 1999, when the MVP panel was reduced to 50 voters.

Watt, 26, is now entering his fifth NFL season, but it already feels as if we’re running out of ways to talk about how special he is as a player. The scariest part for quarterbacks: He plans to push the boundaries of his pre-snap movement even farther in 2015.

* * *

Photos by Jim Rogash and Mark D. Phillips/Getty Images

It’s not just the act of steamrolling opponents that delights Watt. Even talking about setting up the act elicits a sinister chuckle from the NFL’s most dynamic defender. Consider this recent exchange with a reporter.

How many options could you have in any defensive call?

Watt: “Heh, heh, heh. On any call, really, I could do just about anything, as long as I make sure it’s communicated with the rest of the guys.”

How late before the snap can you decide what you’re going to do?

Watt: “Heh, heh, heh. That’s one thing that, as the year went on, you can start to make it later and later because we got more and more comfortable. That’s why, in Romeo’s second year, we’re so in sync and we’re so far ahead of where we were a year ago at this time. They know what I’m thinking, I know what they're thinking, so all we need to do is a look, or a little hand signal, and we're good to go.”

• SUPERCHARGED: J.J. Watt on fame, fun and how he planned to improve on one of the greatest defensive seasons ever

Pro Football Focus, the football analytics website, charted 32 different spots along the defensive front where Watt lined up last season—the most in any season of his career. He most commonly lined up at the 5-technique, on the outside shoulder of the tackle, but he showed up anywhere from nosetackle to the speed-rushing 9-technique beyond the outside shoulder of the tight end. (He actually lined up in a wide-9 alignment even more often than a pure edge defender such as Jason Pierre-Paul.)

“Lawrence Taylor was a special kind of player, but having him in one place, offenses began to scheme for him in that one place,” Crennel says. “When we were able to pick him up and let him move around, they couldn’t necessarily scheme for him. He can look at the formation, he can look at the backfield set, look at the blockers and decide where he wants to go, and then the rest of the defense worked around it. And that’s similar to what we're doing with J.J.”

Virtually all defenses run stunts and games with their defensive linemen, which have them cross paths and attack a different gap from where they line up. The difference with Watt is that he often doesn’t follow a prescribed path by the coaches and instead makes decisions on the fly. As he plots his moves, Watt factors everything from the split of the running back to the weight distribution in the offensive linemen’s feet to the opponent’s tendency to run plays in a certain direction depending on the hash mark. He operates like a quarterback, reading the opponent to determine where he needs to go to make a play.

“That’s kind of where you have to look into the mind of their offensive coordinator,” Watt says. “It becomes a higher-level conversation: OK, where are they going to send the protection, and are they going to send it to me no matter where I go, because then it doesn’t matter where I go. It’s like a high-stakes game of chess, and what makes it so fun is the challenge. That’s why I get so excited when I get a sack, because of how challenging and how difficult it is.”

He and Taylor are kindred football spirits. “Listen, I may have been sleeping in meetings, but I always knew where every one of my teammates was supposed to be,” LT said. “And I knew the [opponents’] tendencies. I mastered the mental part of the game every bit as much as the physical aspects.”

Watt’s pre-snap movements only work if they’re done in concert with his teammates up front, so two players don’t go into the same gap and leave another exposed. Watt needs a so-called “cover guy,” and that role is often filled by fellow defensive end Jared Crick, Watt’s teammate for three years and good buddy off the field. “That’s why he has that freedom,” Crick says, “because everyone knows that I’ll be there, or someone will be there, to have his back.”

Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

If Watt moves inside to Crick’s gap, for instance, Crick will cover him outside. The two of them have played together for long enough, and study so much together during the week, that Crick usually knows what Watt is going to do and how he needs to play without the two of them needing to talk on every down. Sometimes they use verbal or nonverbal cues. That happened in Week 17 against the Jaguars last season, on the safety that pushed Watt past the 20-sack threshold for the second time in his career. (Since sacks were recorded as an official stat in 1982, he is the first to achieve that feat in multiple seasons.)

The Jaguars were backed up in their own territory late in the game. Crick and Watt were both lined up against the left side of Jacksonville’s offensive line, and they had planned to run a stunt, crossing paths with each other on the pass rush. Right before the snap, though, they realized the stunt might not work against the formation—there were seven offensive players in to block, and tight end Marcedes Lewis could have potentially motioned across the formation right to where Watt would have gone on his stunt. On the tape, you can see Crick turning to Watt three seconds before the snap and making a hasty hand signal. They called off the stunt, stuck with a straight pass rush, and Watt used an inside spin move to beat Luke Joeckel and bring down Blake Bortles in the end zone. It extended the Texans’ lead to six points late in the fourth quarter.

“That little tinker, that little call-off,” Crick says, “won us the game.”

* * *

Before the Eagles traveled to Houston last November, right guard Todd Herremans asked teammate Connor Barwin, who had played alongside Watt in Houston for two seasons, for a scouting report. Barwin told Herremans to expect Watt to move all around in search of a lineman he could expose.

Barwin’s last year in Houston, 2012, was the first year Watt was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, and then-coordinator Wade Phillips started to scheme up ways, such as running stunts, to free up Watt. But even after he left for Philadelphia, Barwin, with the trained eye of a fellow pass rusher, appreciated how much freedom Watt had to move around.

At Colts training camp this summer, where Herremans is now preparing to face Watt twice a year on his new team, he recalled that game. “I think it was me,” Herremans said of Watt’s target. On any other Sunday, the respected veteran might not have been. But Herremans was trying to play with a torn biceps he’d suffered the previous week, which would land him on injured reserve a few days later.

• DEEP DIVE: Andy Benoit on Bill O’Brien and the overachieving Texans

Watt lined up against Herremans on the first play of the game and beat him quickly to the inside. Watt stayed in that same spot almost exclusively for the Eagles’ first two drives, during which time he pushed past Herremans to stop LeSean McCoy for a 1-yard gain. On a third down midway through the third quarter, Watt lined up on the inside shoulder of the right tackle, then cut across to beat Herremans with an inside rip move against his badly injured left arm. Watt dove at quarterback Mark Sanchez, pressuring him into a throw that was dropped by a Houston cornerback. That was Herremans’ last play of the season.

Watt’s autonomy at the line was spotlighted in Week 13 against the Titans, when he was wired for sound for Showtime’s Inside the NFL. An injury to Taylor Lewan forced Will Svitek, a veteran backup who was signed off the street midseason, into a spot start at left tackle. Watt took full advantage.

After he blew past Svitek on a few edge rushes, the microphone picks up Watt telling teammate Whitney Mercilus, “He ain’t blocked me once. I’m telling you right now, this guy ain’t blocking me. I’m not leaving this spot.” Having set up Svitek with outside rushes, Watt then went on to beat him with an inside swim move for a 14-yard sack just before halftime.

Going into games, Watt studies how that week’s offense has tried to account for other good pass rushers earlier in the season. Do they usually slide their protection to where the best pass rusher lines up, or will there be opportunities for him to get one-on-one matchups? As crazy as it sounds, there are times when Watt gets a free shot at the quarterback because the opponent either doesn’t have time, or chooses not to, direct the protection toward him.

Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph points to Watt’s 80-yard interception return against the Bills last September. Watt lined up wide on the third-down play, and the tight end who motioned to his side ran a downfield route, leaving Watt unblocked. The Texans were sending five rushers, and film study during the week had revealed a Buffalo tendency against the blitz—when the running back was offset far to the right, he’d release to the flat, where the quarterback would throw hot to him. Mid-rush, Watt recognized that EJ Manuel was making the hot throw to Fred Jackson, and leaped up for the pick-six. (Watt’s hands are so good, he was used on offense for nine plays last season, catching all three passes thrown his way for touchdowns.)

Photo by Scott Levey/Getty Images

There was another example in the Eagles game: On a third-and-5 at the end of the first half, perhaps detecting that the offensive line was about to slide left, toward Watt, No. 99 switched spots with defensive tackle Tim Jamison about a second before the ball was snapped. While Watt stood up across from the right tackle, the entire Eagles line slid to the left, leaving Watt with a free gap to sack Sanchez for a loss of seven yards.

Watt’s flexibility on the defensive front usually comes into play in passing situations, because defending the run is more about discipline and gap integrity. But Crennel trusts Watt to follow his instincts in pursuit of a play. The payoff: 29 tackles for loss last season. One such play came against the Colts in Week 6, when Watt was initially aligned on the outside shoulder of the right tackle. When the ball was snapped, he knifed inside, blowing past the tackle and the right guard, to drag down the back for a loss of two yards.

“There were times when he lined up head up on a guy, outside shade, and at the last second, before the quarterback gets into his cadence, he would slide into an inside shade technique and just knife those guys, right across the center or guard’s face and make a tackle for a loss,” says Joseph, who, watching from the secondary, was often in awe of Watt’s prescience. “He’s just a dominant force that can line up anywhere on the field to wreak havoc coming from any angle.”

* * *

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Rex Ryan says he lost a “friendly wager” on J.J. Watt in 2011. Ryan was then the head coach of the Jets, who had the 30th pick in that year’s draft and no chance of getting the defensive end out of Wisconsin. Ryan ranked Watt the No. 1 defensive player on the coaches’ draft board, but some of the team’s scouts thought Watt would go lower. Ryan was adamant that Watt wouldn’t last past pick No. 9.

That number wasn’t arbitrary—the Cowboys were picking ninth, and Ryan’s twin brother, Rob, was their defensive coordinator. Rex was confident Rob saw in Watt exactly what he did—the next Dan Hampton, the Bears’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle—and that he would be loud about it. The Cowboys, however, opted for offensive tackle Tyron Smith.

“I told them, there’s no way my brother is not doing everything he can to get Dallas to draft J.J. Watt,” Ryan says. “I know that for a fact. There’s no way Dallas does not take him. And then they took the tackle. [Smith] is a good player; he’s a Pro Bowler. But he’s not J.J. Watt. So I lost the bet, and then he gets picked the next pick.”

• WATT’S NEW SIDEKICK: Vince Wilfork looks like his vintage self

Actually, two picks later. Ten players, including four defensive players, were selected before Houston drafted Watt at No. 11: Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Aldon Smith, Jake Locker, Tyron Smith and Blaine Gabbert. Seven of those players are currently starters for the teams that drafted them, a pretty good hit rate. But the comparisons to Lawrence Taylor highlight just how rare Watt is.

Defensive coaches and players around the league were stumped trying to think of others who have been given the same freedom as Watt and Taylor. A defense being multiple, and being schemed to confuse the opponent, is one thing. A player being given free rein do so himself is quite another. “Reggie White had some freedom,” Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said. Browns outside linebacker Paul Kruger paused for five full seconds to consider the question. “No one stands out as drastically,” he said. Rex went back to the era of his father, Buddy Ryan. “My dad used to call ‘AF-57,’ where he’d have the guy blitz where he wanted,” he said. “Things like that have been done, but I think not to this extent.”

Watt’s promise to capitalize more on his freedom in Year 2 under Crennel is troubling news for offenses around the league. Since last season the Texans also added nosetackle Vince Wilfork, though he’ll be more of a factor in running situations, and they hope 2014 No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney can add to the pass rush in his return from knee surgery. In the four games Clowney played last season, the Texans often leveraged him off Watt, an intriguing wrinkle that could set up even more opportunities for a defense known for its big plays.

Beyond studying his opponents to make those game-changing plays, Watt also turns to the tape from bygone eras to coopt tricks and techniques from some of the game’s best pass rushers. There are four main players he routinely watches: Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Howie Long and Lawrence Taylor.

Though they’ve never met, Taylor is watching Watt, too.

“I’m always flattered when people speak about how I changed the sport. The crazy part is I did it 30-plus years ago, and it still resonates today,” Taylor wrote. “The kid is the real deal and I respect his game because he has done it over time. You know, for so many years I’ve heard so and so is gonna be the next LT. Well let me tell you, I’m not sure that’s gonna happen because this s--- ain’t easy. To me, the great ones do it year in and year out. J.J. has been doing it for some time now, and if he stays healthy, he could be an all-timer. I’d like to sit down with him one day, talk shop a bit.”

Maybe that’ll happen if Watt can some day join Taylor in the elite club of defensive players to be named league MVP. But if you ask LT, that should have happened last year. Said Taylor: “I thought he should have been MVP.”

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)