Smarter Stats: J.J. Watt's longshot MVP campaign off to a strong start
"The one thing that I can say is that I promise to do everything in my power to work extremely hard, to give everything that I have to prove that I deserve this and to prove that I’ve earned this."
That's what Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt said at the press conference announcing his six-year, $100 million contract extension on Sept. 2. And no matter how the money plays out (NFL contracts are never what they seem), there's no doubt Watt is worth it in a comparative sense. He led the league with 20.5 sacks in 2012, and though his sack total dropped to 10.5 last season, Watt was even more effective in other ways. A fuller appreciation of Watt's dominance can help illustrate the value of advanced stats for defensive players.
In 2013, Watt had 36 quarterback hits and 38 quarterback hurries last season and led the league with 54 run stops. According to Football Outsiders' metrics, Watt was involved in 11.3 percent of his defense's plays, the best rate in the league, and he finished among the league leaders in tipped passes and overall defeats. In other words, sacks aside, there was no other player responsible for more defensive plays, and certainly not for more negative offensive plays, than Watt over the last two seasons.
In the 2014 season opener against Washington, Watt went off again, before and after linemate Jadeveon Clowney left the game with the torn meniscus that will cause him to miss 4-6 weeks. Watt ended the game with three tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, a fumble recovery and a blocked PAT. And it's totally foreseeable that he'll maintain this ridiculous level of play all season.
If he does, it would raise a valid question: Should Watt be named the NFL's Most Valuable Player? Only two defensive players in league history -- Minnesota's Alan Page in 1971 and Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants in 1986 -- have taken the award. Quarterbacks have taken five of the last six MVP awards and 11 of the last 14, but if Watt basically neutralizes every quarterback he faces and plays the run this strongly, shouldn't he be in the discussion?
Some other interesting statistical tidbits from Week 1 action (all metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus):
• Tony Romo's three-pick day against the 49ers was hardly an oddity, but the circumstances surrounding it were. All three interceptions came off play action -- Romo had just four play-action passes on Sunday -- and in 2013, Romo wasn't intercepted once in 73 play-action attempts.
• Russell Wilson led the NFL in play-action percentage in 2013 -- utilizing it in 34.1 percent of his dropbacks -- and it could be argued that he should do it even more often in 2014, especially since Seattle's offense is now uniquely set up to totally befuddle opponents with it. Against the Packers on the league's opening night, Wilson threw from play action on nine of his 28 attempts and completed six passes for 100 yards and both of his touchdowns.
• Nick Foles was no great shakes in the Eagles' 34-17 comeback win over the Jaguars. He missed several open targets and appeared to be overwhelmed when under pressure -- and he was pressured a lot. He was sacked five times in 11 dropbacks under pressure, completing just two of six passes. Philly's offensive line, which benefited from an unusual level of continuity in 2013, has already lost its best player in guard Evan Mathis, and various other injuries have befallen the rest of the front five. Allen Barbre, who was supposed to replace Lane Johnson at right tackle while Johnson serves a four-game suspension, was lost for the year with an ankle injury.
• The Broncos put their faith in running back Montee Ball this season, letting Knowshon Moreno bail for Miami via free agency. Through one week, the move appears to be benefiting both teams. Ball rushed for 67 yards on 23 carries against the Colts on Sunday night and caused nine missed tackles, leading the NFL in Week 1. Moreno led all rushers with 134 yards against the Patriots and caused six missed tackles on 24 attempts. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell led the league in yards gained after contact, with 4.0 per carry against the Browns. Bell also paced the NFL with 88 receiving yards, the highest number for any back.
• When the Ravens are considering who will be their starting running back going forward, they should take pass-blocking into account. If they do, it will be tough for them to ignore Justin Forsett. In Sunday's loss to the Bengals, Forsett had nine pass-blocking opportunities on 43 plays and didn't allow a single sack, hit or hurry. Forsett played for current Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak in Houston during the 2012 season.
• No surprise that Calvin Johnson led the league in passes caught over 20 yards in the air in Week 1, given the Giants' unique "Let's not cover Megatron at all" gambit in the first half of Detroit's Monday night win. Johnson caught three such passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns. We're assuming that the Panthers will come up with a strategy that involves putting a few hats on the NFL's best receiver.
• Whatever problems Robert Griffin III may have, he'd better not blame his receivers. Against Houston, Griffin threw 12 times to Pierre Garcon and eight times to DeSean Jackson, and Griffin's top two receivers didn't drop a single pass.
• Want further proof that more and more NFL teams are looking to create matchup nightmares by placing their primary receivers in the slot? Indy's Reggie Wayne took 82.1 percent of his total snaps in the slot against Denver, Anquan Boldin came in at 63.6 percent for the 49ers against the Cowboys, and Demaryius Thomas slotted up on 54.5 percent of his snaps for the Broncos. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald took 44.4 percent of his snaps in the slot, and it could be argued that Carson Palmer didn't even see him until late in the fourth quarter against the Chargers.
• The Patriots made no mystery of where they wanted to put Tim Wright, the tight end they received in the Logan Mankins trade. The former Buccaneer took 84.2 percent of his snaps in the slot in Week 1, leading all players at his position. In Tampa Bay's offense last season, Wright lined up in the slot on 62.2 percent of his snaps.
• Yes, Tennessee's Jurrell Casey got a lucrative new contract in the offseason, but we're going to call him underrated until people are actually, you know, talking about him. The best unsung defensive lineman in 2013 had no trouble at all moving from the Titans' old 4-3 to new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's multi-faceted defense. He racked up three hits and four hurries and played the run extremely well inside and outside. On one early play against the Chiefs, the 6-1, 300-pound Casey beat a double team on the outside -- as a stand-up end. This, folks, is a very special player.
• Aaron Rodgers made it a point not to throw anywhere near Richard Sherman, which meant a busier night for other Seahawks defenders. Byron Maxwell, Sherman's bookend in the Seattle secondary, was targeted 11 times (mostly matched up with Packers wideout Jordy Nelson), allowing nine catches for 79 yards.
• Best cornerback of the season's first week? We'll take Jason McCourty of the Titans, who was targeted 10 times and allowed five catches for 74 yards but pulled in two interceptions. Buffalo's Corey Graham also deserves consideration: He was targeted 10 times against the Bears and allowed just three catches for 18 yards and a 0.0 opponent quarterback rating. That is a shutdown performance.