How great is J.J. Watt?

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Despite playing with a broken hand, J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans’ All-World defendsive end, will be the biggest challenge the New England Patriots’ offense will face this Sunday. Since his breakout pick-six in Houston’s playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals as a rookie, the fifth-year defensive end developed into one of the league’s best defensive players. Just how good is he, and how does he compare to some of the greatest defensive players of the recent past?

Sacks, Sacks and More Sacks

The most visible number for Watt’s dominance is his sack total. He had 20.5 his second season, 20.5 again in 2014, and has 13.5 in 12 games this year. His 36.5 sacks in his first three seasons are the seventh-most since the NFL started officially keeping track of stats in 1982. His 57 sacks in his first four seasons is the third-best total. With four games left to play in his fifth season, he is already at 70.5 career sacks. The only other player with at least 70 sacks in his first five NFL seasons is Reggie White, who had the benefit of playing two USFL seasons first. Just three other players have had at least 60 sacks in their first five seasons, though Von Miller will likely join that group. By any standard, Watt is off to the best start to his career of anybody in the history of the official sack metric.

Watt’s five-year streak has been impressive not just for a rookie, but for any player at all. He is just the sixth different player since 1982 to have at least 70 sacks in a five-year period at any point in his career. (Table 1.)

Table 1. 70-plus Sacks in Five-Year Span, 1982-2015

Player Years
Jared Allen 2007-2013
Bruce Smith 1986-1990
Lawrence Taylor 1984-1990
DeMarcus Ware 2006-2012
J.J. Watt 2011-2015
Reggie White 1985-1992

More Than Just Sacks

It would be one thing if Watt was just a pure sacker, or if he was converting pressures to sacks at a particularly high rate. He is not. Even in his modest, 5.5-sack rookie season, he was tied for sixth in the league in quarterback hits. In each of 2012, 2013, and 2014, he led the league in combined sacks and quarterback hits by at least 10 each season. In 2014, he had a combined 54 sacks and hits, a whopping 23 more than second-place Elvis Dumervil. Like his 13.5 sacks so far, his 42 quarterback hits also leads the NFL. He is also getting near the passer when he does not hit him. According to Football Outsiders data, he was fifth in the NFL in hurries in 2012, fourth in 2013, and first in 2014.

Watt also excels at winning when he does not get near the passer, by getting his hands into passing lanes and deflecting passes. His most impressive season in that category was 2012 when he tipped 18 passes at the line of scrimmage, per Football Outsiders, more than twice as many as any other defender. In 2013, he was one back of the league leaders in that area, and he again topped the league in 2014. This season, his five passes defensed lead all defensive linemen.

His Position Makes His Production More Impressive

What makes Watt’s productivity even more impressive is where he’s doing it from. The lists of the top sackers and hurriers, both present-day and in the past, is full of edge-rushers, 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. Watt’s versatility has increased in recent years, but he has spent much of his career as a 3-4 defensive end while playing defensive tackle in sub-package situations. The interior line is the shortest path to the quarterback, but it also tends to be the hardest one. The only other non-edge rushers among the historical lists of the top sackers are Bill Pickel, a 1980s Raiders nose tackle who excelled early, and Bruce Smith.

Great Run Defense As Well

The criticism, fair or not, against many interior linemen who do get pressure, from the modestly successful to Hall of Famers like John Randle, is they are not good run defenders. Watt is almost undeniably a superb one, ranking first in the league in run tackles for loss in both 2012 and 2014 and third in 2013. His particular specialty is making plays from the backside of runs, where he excels at getting inside and forcing the runner to bounce the run to avoid being taken down in the backfield.

The Difficulty of Putting Watt in Perspective

Unfortunately, some of the stats that show Watt’s greatness make it hard to compare him to other players. Sacks were not an official stat before 1982. Passes defensed are not widely available before 2001. Quarterback hits go back to 2006. Hurries and other unofficial stats are about as old. Tackle totals still vary widely between scorers, and they were worse before the mid-1990s. This makes it hard to more precisely compare Watt to greats like Bruce Smith, Lawrence Taylor, and Reggie White.

The most comprehensive measure we have may be Football Outsiders’ defeats, which goes back to 1996 and includes sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, and third-and-fourth-down tackles short of the sticks. Watt’s 56 defeats in 2012 is the most by any single player in that time span. His 43 in 2014 ranks fourth. His league-leading 34 through 12 games this year puts him on pace to match Ray Lewis’ third-highest total of 45. By almost any measure Watt is the most consistently impactful defender of the past 20 years. His only challenge now may be sustaining that greatness for the rest of his career.

Broncos double-digit favorites on Sunday night vs. winless, depleted Giants

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The Denver Broncos head into Sunday night with the largest spread they have had at home after a bye week in at least 25 years. The Broncos are 11.5-point favorites against the winless New York Giants with a 38.5-point total for the Week 6 Sunday Night Football matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Denver is 6-1 straight-up and against the spread in post-bye week games dating back to 2010. There’s a similar long-running trend of Denver being 7-2 SU and ATS in home games following a bye week since 2003. However, this is the first time since 1996 that Denver has been a double-digit favorite in that scenario.

The Giants, which are 0-5 SU and 2-3 ATS, had three wide receivers, including Odell Beckham Jr., sustain season-ending injuries last week. That has left QB Eli Manning with WR Roger Lewis (15 career catches) and WR Tavarres King as his main outside targets. Slot WR Sterling Shephard (sprained ankle) could be inactive.

While team performances tend to gravitate toward the mean with time, the Giants will need to show something new – with replacement-level personnel – in order to move the ball against a Denver pass defense which allows only 6.2 yards per pass, fifth-best in the NFL.

The Broncos’ top-ranked defense, led by OLB Von Miller, is also first in run defense and has every starter healthy. While NFC teams are a combined 1-10 SU on the road against Denver since 2012, the Giants are a solid 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games against the AFC.

Denver, 3-1 SU and 2-1-1 ATS, has been quietly efficient on offense. The Broncos, with QB Trevor Siemian, are in the middle of the NFL pack in yards per pass, but they are facing a Giants secondary that is minus CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (suspension) and has also had inconsistent play from CB Eli Apple.

Denver, 7-2 ATS over its last nine home games in October, has been good at opening holes for the tandem of C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles, who are each capable of making things happen in the open field if the tackling gets sloppy. New York also won’t have DT Olivier Vernon drawing double teams up front and keeping blockers off MLB Damon Harrison.

Unless the Broncos stop themselves, they should be able to grind out a workmanlike win.

The total has gone over in three of the Giants’ last four games against the Broncos, according to the OddsShark NFL Database. The total has gone over in six of the Broncos’ last seven games as a favorite of 11.0 points or more.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Watch Indianapolis Colts vs. Seattle Seahawks live on NBC

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The Seattle Seahawks host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football as both teams look to get back to .500.

Russell Wilson will be the focal point of the Seahawks offense after throwing for a career-high 373 yards and four touchdowns in a losing effort vs. the Titans in Week 3. Wilson’s ability to avoid the rush and use his legs will be on full display as Seattle’s offensive line continues to struggle.

On the defensive side, the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” will look to get back on track at home in a raucous environment against Colts QB Jacoby Brissett who is filling in for an injured Andrew Luck.

If the Colts have any chance to pull off the upset on the road, Brissett will have to use his legs and connect on some deep throws to T.Y. Hilton.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Colts vs. Seahawks

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app