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.

Sunday Night Football odds: Eagles laying touchdown against Cowboys

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The fact that the Philadelphia Eagles are coming off a bye while the Dallas Cowboys had a short week to work on their road woes should tip off straight-up bettors, but the spread might be another story.

The Eagles, led by quarterback Carson Wentz, are 7-point favorites on the Sunday Night Football odds against the Cowboys with a 43.5-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Philadelphia is 16-3 straight-up and 12-6-1 against the spread in its last 19 games after having at least a full week off, while Dallas is 0-9 SU in its last nine games after playing the Monday prior.

Dallas carries a good head-to-head trend of being 5-1 SU and ATS in their last six road games at Philadelphia, according to the OddsShark NFL Database, and is also 6-3 ATS in its last nine road games as an underdog of 6.5 or more points.

The Cowboys are 3-5 both SU and ATS after a home loss against the Houston Texans on Monday. Dallas and quarterback Dak Prescott have habitually struggled to score points on the road, and a nicked-up offensive line faces a very strong Eagles defensive line led by tackle Fletcher Cox. For all the formidability of its front four, though, the Eagles are giving up 4.5 yards per rush and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott should find some room to the outside as both a rusher and pass receiver.

Dallas will be without wide receiver Tavon Austin (groin) and will need more out of Amari Cooper in the passing phase as the ex-Oakland Raider enters his second game for the Cowboys.

The Eagles, who are 4-4 SU and 3-5 ATS and need the win to have any reasonable chance at defending their Super Bowl crown, are 7-1 SU and 6-2 ATS over their last eight games at night. Bettors’ confidence in the Eagles’ offensive capabilities might come down to the health of right tackle Lane Johnson (knee), who is expected to play and provide resistance to the Dallas pass rush.

Quarterback Carson Wentz now has wide receiver Golden Tate, recently acquired via trade, in his arsenal against a Cowboys pass defense that allows the sixth-worst opponents’ passer rating (101.1) in the NFL.

The ground game has generated middling results for the Eagles, who are still hoping either Corey Clement or Wendell Smallwood can take a lead role. Dallas also allows the second-least yards per rush in the NFL, which is a small reason to think the Cowboys will offer some resistance by forcing Wentz into obvious passing downs.

Wentz will likely face some long-yardage scenarios, though, as the Cowboys allow the second-least yards per carry.

There are pronounced UNDER trends in this matchup. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last three games against the Eagles, with an average combined score of 30.67 points. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last eight games on the road, with an average combined score of 31.25 points. And the total has gone UNDER in eight of the Eagles’ last nine games at home, with an average combined score of 31.89 points.

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

NFL Week 6 odds: Bengals, Eagles, Patriots are all betting favorites

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The Cincinnati Bengals usually handle struggling teams, but it’s fair to wonder if that trend will be cancelled out by their long-running difficulties against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bengals, led by quarterback Andy Dalton, are 2.5-point favorites against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the NFL Week 6 odds with a 53-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

According to the OddsShark NFL Database, it is only the sixth time in the last 14 seasons that the AFC North-leading Bengals are favored at home against the Steelers, but they are 14-4 straight-up in their last 18 home games against teams with losing records, and are also 6-1 SU and against the spread in their last seven games.

The Steelers, 2-2-1 SU on the season, have dominated the matchup with a 16-2 SU record in their last 18 road games against the Bengals, but they are also 1-6 ATS in their last seven games in the early afternoon.

The Philadelphia Eagles are 3-point road favorites against the New York Giants  with a 43-point total for the Thursday Night Football matchup. The Eagles are 14-6 ATS in their last 20 games against the Giants. The total has gone OVER in the Eagles’ last five games against the Giants, with an average combined score of 54.6. The Giants are 2-8 SU and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 home games.

The Seattle Seahawks are 3-point favorites against the Oakland Raiders with a 48-point total in a matchup at Wembley Stadium in London. The Seahawks, who will be idle in Week 7, are 7-0 SU and 6-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The Raiders are 2-5 SU and 1-5-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The total has gone UNDER in 10 of the Raiders’ last 12 games, with an average combined score of 43.33.

The Chicago Bears are 3-point road favorites against the Miami Dolphins with a 42-point total. The Bears are 1-9 SU in their last 10 games on the road against teams with winning records. The total has gone UNDER in five of the Bears’ last seven games, with an average combined score of 37.43. The Dolphins are 0-7-1 ATS in their last eight games at home after consecutive road games.

The Washington Redskins are 1-point favorites against the Carolina Panthers with a 44.5-point total. The Panthers are 4-0 ATS in their last four games against the Redskins. The Redskins are 3-10 SU in their last 13 games in Week 6. The total has gone UNDER in four of the Redskins’ last five games in the early afternoon.

The Los Angeles Rams are 7-point road favorites against the Denver Broncos with a 52.5-point total. The Rams are 8-2 SU and 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games in the late afternoon. The total has gone OVER in eight of the Rams’ last 10 games on the road, with an average combined score of 54.5. The Broncos are 4-13 SU and 2-14-1 ATS in their last 17 games.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are 3-point road favorites against the Dallas Cowboys with a 40.5-point total. The Jaguars are 4-22 SU and 6-20 ATS in their last 26 games in the late afternoon. The Cowboys are 0-5 SU and ATS in their last five games in the late afternoon.

The New England Patriots are 3.5-point favorites against the Kansas City Chiefs with a 59.5-point total in the Sunday Night Football matchup. The Chiefs have covered in every game so far this season and are 8-2 ATS in their last 10 games after consecutive ATS wins. The total has gone OVER in 10 of the Chiefs’ last 14 games at night. The Patriots are 10-4 ATS in their last 14 games at night.

And the Green Bay Packers are 9.5-point road favorites against the San Francisco 49ers with a 46.5-point total for Monday night’s game. The 49ers are 0-14 SU and 5-9 ATS in their last 14 road games as an underdog of 7.5 or more points. The Packers are 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS in their last 10 home games as a favorite of 7.5 or more points.

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