Potential Playbook Installments: Mitigating JJ Watt

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle enters training camp with a competition at Right Guard, and a road game to Houston a month later. What might they do?

This is the first of a small series on potential additions to the playbook. Let me tease the next article by saying the apparent confirmation of Bruce Irvin's move to SLB excites me quite a bit, and paired with Cliff Avril, makes the possible defensive installment I break down there more realistic. I can't wait.

For now, it's no secret that when facing Houston, we have ourselves a bit of a problem. For my money, JJ Watt was the 2012 league MVP; Defensive Player of the Year didn't quite do justice to the impact he made, relative to the impact of any of his "peers" (and I use the term lightly):

2012 Success Count: Watt vs. leaders at all defensive positions (including playoffs):

Watt: 121
NaVorro Bowman: 108
Muhammad Wilkerson: 71
Justin Smith: 66
Antoine Winfield: 64
Eric Berry: 55

(source: http://wp.advancednflstats.com/defenderstats.php)

Success count is "the number of plays in which a player was directly involved that would typically be considered successful. Specifically, SC is the number of plays resulting in positive Expected Points Added (EPA)."

Linebackers often have high SC figures, just as they often have high tackle counts (SC doesn't include every tackle, just the EPA-positive (successful) ones). Yet Watt's 121 is the second-highest SC count Brian Burke's stats have counted, after Ray Lewis' 2001 season. But no defensive player's season has produced the WPA of Watt's season:

2012 Win Probability Added: Watt vs. leaders at all defensive positions (including playoffs and 2001 Ray Lewis):

Watt: 3.14
Ray Lewis (2001): 2.66
Lawrence Timmons: 2.36
Patrick Peterson: 2.01
Ronde Barber: 2.01
Geno Atkins: 1.95

(source: http://wp.advancednflstats.com/defenderstats.php)

WPA over 3 is Quarterback territory. Quarterback territory in the Era of Rule Enforcement Geared Toward Scoring. Watt's WPA would have been 2nd-best among QBs in 2000 and 2001, and was close behind Russell Wilson's in 2012 (matching that of Cam Newton).

Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 came out this week. They counted 56 defeats for Watt. Defeats are stops that end a drive, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or produce a turnover. This was the most defeats in a single season they've tracked, going back to 1996. The 2nd best was Ray Lewis in 1999 with 45. So he's pretty good.

Not particularly news. Come playoff time, opponents were looking to mitigate Watts' impact, and finding mixed results. Of the approximately two dozen double-teams I saw him face, about 20 were beaten, about as quickly as a single block, and Watt didn't just factor, but defeated the play.

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He so frequently beats his man/men, so quickly, that the question of his impact on a play is more often a matter of where the play is & goes, in relation to where he is. Here he swims past Andre Smith and trips up BenJarvus Green-Ellis 3 yards into the backfield in about 2 seconds.

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Running a play in consideration to where Watt is -- to the other side; to the area teams expect he'll vacate -- was a tactic I saw used multiple times, with mixed results. I saw cuts. I think I saw faked doubles, which amounted to a beaten double-team. New England ran a fake stretch with Watt on the backside, where Sebastian Vollmer let him slip into the B gap then blocked his back shoulder, while the Center looped around like a trap block to take him on in front, all while Tom Brady took a 7-step play-action drop; Watt still defeated the play with a sack.

Most common tactic, the double-team, was least effective. Most effective was letting him slip into the inside gap and then blocking him out of a counter. Despite the embarrassing of Smith in the gif above, he probably fared the best out of the games I watched. Which is to say, mixed results. I saw New England & Indianapolis ignore him a couple times.

Yes, ignore. Did it work? No, point in fact it didn't. Watt crashed down the line from the backside to make the tackle. But as they said in The Ghost & The Darkness, it was still a good idea.

Let's review. Your standard read option reads an unblocked, backside defender and runs where they ain't. The offense doesn't particularly want the unblocked defender to just crash down the line, as it forces the QB to keep the ball. Which we've seen do plenty of damage, but the offense doesn't like to get dictated to.

Here is the standard alignment 3-4 defenses have most frequently used against outside zone read option.

They are short one lineman because Seattle's OZR is typically 10 personnel. With four wideouts, defenses need a nickel back, and bring a safety into the box over the slot. 4-3 defenses often use a similar alignment. With their rushers set in Wide 9s, there is a 3-on-2 disadvantage in between the tackles, and the inside cutback by the running back is still a threat, so the typical deployment has been two DTs, four LBs, 5 DBs.

Versus San Francisco and Washington, two teams that knew read option quite well, the read defender is the strong-side, backside end, lined up over Doug Baldwin. Houston did not face a read-option team in 2012 but they'll be plenty prepared for it. We would expect SLB Brooks Reed here, unless Houston breaks the mold.

We've seen Watt line up all over the line, from nose to 9-tech, hand in the dirt or standing. He's mostly stuck to the strong-side, however, which would lead me to expect him to align 2i or 3-tech over Right Guard, keeping in Earl Mitchell as the other interior lineman, letting Antonio Smith rest. Watt's run defense specialty seemed to become crashing down the line with backside penetration to wrap up the ball carrier behind the line, another reason I'd expect him on the strong-side here.

All of which is why I fully expect to see Seattle break out a read option wrinkle that Chip Kelly broke out at Oregon in 2009. Remember Jeremiah Masoli? Pete Carroll does. It was Halloween, and the goblins wore green that day.

What's different? The read was moved over to the 3-tech tackle. The end is blocked out, leaving an enormous gap. As has been said before, if you can't block em, read em. The more agile Masoli beats the 3-tech in a phone booth and takes off.

Couple problems with this. First, don't expect any tackle in the NFL to penetrate the way this SC tackle did. This was the 3rd year Oregon had run rampant with Kelly's offense, and the zone read plays were fairly well established, if good football coaches in the conference like Carroll still hadn't quite figured out how to defend them. You can see the end expecting to need to cover for both possibilities. The tackles, on other read option plays in this game, apparently were coached to swing wide when they got through the gap, to corral in any QB running lanes. An NFL interior lineman would not likely do that. If they're matadored into the backfield they'll almost certainly try to chase Marshawn Lynch down from behind, and that's what Watt is best at.

Next, presuming the Texans and any other team aligns as above and not with this USC guesswork approach in the video, the ILB will scrape over if/as Wilson keeps the ball on the counter. This really combines to make one problem with two facets: you either create a large B gap running lane, straight into the unblocked ILB, or you create a large B gap running lane but kick to the outside, where there's traffic.

So how could this work? Keep in mind it's a wrinkle, and would likely be brought out late, after a handful of end-read OZR snaps get the defense used to it. Just as IZR was originally an in-game wrinkle to exploit defenses getting used to defending OZR, by trying to get ahead of their blocker, only to see the back take a more vertical angle and cut back earlier, the 3-tech read wrinkle would exploit defenses anticipating the end read, with the end either crashing down or squaring in to disrupt the read. In either case, he'll have lost leverage and be unprepared for a kickout block.

Similarly unexpected would be the tackle, Watt in this case, having any key or concern on what the QB does. The enormous gap we saw Oregon produce is actually not uncommon in the NFL, you may be surprised to learn. Just as with the infamous "I'll just read it" run by Lynch vs. Minnesota last year, an outside counter play called Stag that runs like OZR but deliberately cuts back behind the tackle, was wrinkled in-game to kick out the end, enticing the LB to scrape over to cover the QB run, leaving an enormous B gap running lane, Seattle also added a kickout on the frontside of an OZR vs. Washington in the playoffs, and in both cases the running lane was wide. I'm using the most applicable examples I can find.

Reading the 3-tech is quite common for option offenses, but even the read-option offenses in Division I college football very rarely used it. That was what made Kelly's use in 2009 vs USC so novel; it was completely unexpected, and the players had not been prepared to react.

In the NFL, and specifically vs. Watt and Houston, that large running lane can very well get opened up, but so too should we expect it to close very quickly. This should probably be an option fake, designed QB run. The tackle is closer inside than the end, and can easily run down the running back. The designed QB run would almost certainly be safe from the 3-tech initially, but there would be little margin for error, as the DT won't likely have moved far out of that gap.

Battle Red Blog readers may be scoffing at this point at the apparent disregard for Watt's ability to blow up a play that runs right through his gap with him unblocked; he ran down Andrew Luck near the sideline. Reading the 3-tech and running through his gap is demonstrated to have worked in college, and the alignments and assignments NFL defenses are sure to use here is part of what makes this wrinkle viable. Still, I recognize the wherewithal and long reach Watt has, so I'm going to add one more wrinkle.

The safety or nickel back covering the slot isn't too much of a concern, here; in the cases of both well-versed Washington and San Francisco, the safety still had coverage responsibilities -- apparently the flat -- and the threat of a bootleg pass still loomed, preventing them from crashing down on the QB run (there are three receivers to his side, and only a single-high safety). We've got a blocking slot receiver available for use, and the safety won't be a factor until the QB crosses the line of scrimmage.

Enter the crackback block.

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See, now we're using 11 personnel, and it's not Baldwin in the slot, it's Zach Miller. Breno Giacomini will have enough time to complete his kickout block, and then peel off to pick up the safety.

This should serve as a nice in-game wrinkle after two to four typical Seattle OZR snaps. They may be able to pull this out a few times, in a couple different games. We may see it against San Francisco, first. If it proves successful, and if Seattle sees the 3-tech prepared for the designed run, ready for the crackback, his attention will be scattered to the QB and the TE. At that point, Seattle could run this as a standard read option, reading the 3-tech, with a viable shot at his delay in reading the mesh opening up the chance for Lynch's off tackle zone run to potentially work. That would presumably not be opened up until after they face a player like Watt, like, say, a young and recent 3-4 end convert like Drake Nevis, with the Colts, the following week.

Football evolution can be weird. Watching Carroll's Trojans try some reasonable approaches at defending the read option and failing, and subsequently seeing the viable responses like the scrape exchange and square in become expected responses that the offense can subsequently exploit, seems that perhaps Carroll's 2009 approach of a penetrating tackle swinging wide to cover a lot of ground may eventually become an effective response to the permutations of the day.

It's hard to predict too far out. But we know Seattle will continue using read option in 2013 unless someone makes them stop, and we know their bag of option tricks has been far more meager than Washington's and San Francisco's. We know they will add more plays, and more permutations. This is one I fully expect to see at some point, and my bet is we see it Week 4 at Houston.

Thanks to Danny for the giffage.

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