One of the more interesting story lines entering the Chiefs' game against the Houston Texans on Sunday was how they planned on blocking Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt, the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
The Rams handled Watt well a week before, often running and throwing away from him to limit his impact. The plan worked too, as they managed to hold him without a tackle or a sack for the first time since his rookie season in a 31-13 victory.
Needless to say, the odds of a genuinely disruptive player like Watt being shut out two games in a row were extremely low, especially whenthis happened
. To the surprise of no one, Watt was back to his normal self against the Chiefs, racking up a team high six tackles with a sack, a pass deflection and three quarterback hits in the Texans' 17-16 loss.
To quantify how good he was, consider this: Pro Football Focus assigned him a single-game grade of plus-9.2, which is insane and easily his highest grade of the season. His overall season grade is plus-44.2, which is ― no joke ― 26 points higher than the grade of Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, whose grade of 18.2 is actually the highest on the team.
The point is this: I've long been a firm believer that to be the best, you have to measure yourself against the best. And with all the consternation about the ceiling of the Chiefs' offense this year, I thought it made some sense to go back and review every play from Sunday's game in an effort to see how the Chiefs' offensive line fared against the league's best defensive player.
In short, here's what I found: Excluding the three kneel downs at the end of the game, I had Watt down for 60 defensive snaps, of which he was single-blocked 41 times and doubled 19 times. Furthermore, I counted 17 plays where Watt noticeably beat his offensive counterpart(s), all but five of which came when he was single-blocked.^^
Take all of my numbers for what they're worth. Though I spent several hours in front of a computer trying to nail these numbers down (thanks to the miracle that is NFL Game Rewind), I had to make some decisions about the Chiefs' assignments on every single play, and that can be dicey. Also keep in mind that some of those double teams can be chalked up to the natural assignments that occur on some zone running plays, so I didn't feel comfortable trying to point out specific instances where they adjusted protection to account for Watt. It think I have a bit of a idea, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.
The Chiefs also seemed perfectly willing to run and throw at Watt. Not only did they run to his side 17 times, they also threw to his side of the field (or at least in his general vicinity) 17 times, despite hisunique ability to deflect passes
. I found that pretty surprising, especially when you consider the number of times they ran away from him (12) and threw away from him (11).
But after talking to Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson on Thursday, it made a bit more sense.
“He’s a tremendous football player and one of the top d-lineman in the league, give him credit that way,” Pederson said. “Sometimes the best ways to attack guys like that is to run at them and force double teams on them and then at times, run the other way. You saw, he still got his hits on Alex (Smith) and can be disruptive at times and that’s just the nature of his game.”
Sounds like what I saw on tape, alright. But that's not to say there weren't occasions where the Chiefs clearly made an effort to limit the guy. Check out this awesome play where Watt, no joke, effectively gets triple-teamed. Look to the left in the following .gif. Watt is wearing No. 99.
As you can see, Dwayne Bowe chips Watt after the snap, and tight end Anthony Fasano and tackle Eric Fisher follow by doubling. Fasano even takes him to the ground, a testament to his overall strength.
Speaking of Fisher, of all the Chiefs' linemen, I thought he had the roughest time with Watt. By my count, he was obviously beaten by the guy nine times, one more time than the rest of the Chiefs' offensive line was combined. This seems to jibe with Pro Football Focus' overall grade for Fisher in the game, which was a negative-3.4, lower than every lineman except left guard Jeff Allen, who I thought fared a little better against Watt, but finished with a grade of negative-4.2. To be fair, I only analyzed how each player fared against Watt on every play, so there's certainly some room for other negative plays to influence PFF's grades.
There's also this: Fisher had to face the guy more than his fellow linemen. In all, I had him down for 18 “encounters”^^ against Watt, followed by Allen (15), right guard Jon Asamoah (13), left tackle Branden Albert (13) and center Rodney Hudson (5).
So for fun, here's the complete compilation of how the Chiefs' line individually fared against Watt, with .gifs of what I consider to be the best and worst play against him by each guy.^^
FYI, I graded it a “positive” encounter if the lineman clearly won the matchup, neutralized Watt or simply did his job. I graded it a negative encounter if Watt made a play on the guy. There were a few instances where Watt just made a hell of a play and it was hard to assign blame , but for the sake of consistency (and bookkeeping purposes), I issued the Chief blocking him a “negative” encounter anyway. LT Branden Albert: Ten positives (one pancake), three negatives
The bad:LG Jeff Allen: Twelve positive, three negative (one sack, another quarterback hit)
The bad:C Rodney Hudson: Four positive, one negative
This one is admittedly a bit shaky. Sure, Watt split the double team, but Asamoah needed to get to the second level to continue his assignment, and Watt did make a hell of a play. Opinions welcome! RG Jon Asamoah: Twelve positive, one negative
Please read the disclaimer a few graphs above. RT Eric Fisher: Nine positives (one pancake), nine negative (two quarterback hits, one quarterback hurry, one false start penalty)
Obviously, Fisher's day is the one that stands out. But after a rough first half in which seven of his nine encounters with Watt were negative, he improved some in the second half, when only two of his nine encounters with Watt were negative.
“He''s a tough kid, so I'm pretty sure he came out with the attitude of ''I'm going to get things done,'” Allen said. “And that's what he did.”
I also had Watt beating Fisher four times in pass pro and four times in the running game. I do think it's worth noting, however, that six of the eight times Fisher got beat came when he had no help against Watt, and surprisingly, he was only involved in seven double teams on the guy. That's as many as Asamoah and only a few more than Allen (five), Albert (three) and Hudson (three).
“I wouldn't say we paid him more attention,” Allen said. “We were aware of him, we knew what he was capable of. But as far as changing our whole game plan and the way we go about things, I don't think we did that … you don't want to get away from what you do.”
By sticking to “what they do,” the Chiefs gave Watt a few chances to make a few plays. But at the end of the day, Allen correctly pointed out, the Chiefs scored enough points to win, which means they can call their outing against the NFL's best defensive player a success.
“We did a good job,” Allen said. “Not just against him, but against the entire defense...we put up some numbers as far as yards go, and we may not have put up the points we wanted, but we moved the ball efficiently and made plays.”