J.J. Watt, Houston’s finest Texan, dominated once again this past Sunday, this time against the Tennessee Titans with 1.5 sacks. Watt has controlled pass blockers like cattle en route to a monstrous 7.5 sacks through a mere four games. But what has made Watt so dominant in such a short period of time? Much of the focus has been on his power, and rightfully so. But his quick hands have made his arm-over move really problematic for offensive linemen.
It was 1995 when Wade Phillips brought his “Phillips 3-4″ to Buffalo. He had plenty of pieces for the defense, none better than defensive end Bruce Smith. Smith was one of the league’s best pass rushers from a three-point stance and he continued to ply his trade from the defensive end position under Phillips. He played both outside and inside along the defensive line and racked up 10.5, 13.5, 14, 10 and seven sacks under Phillips in the tail end of his career.
More than a dozen years later, Phillips has another dominant edge rusher in his 3-4, and his name is J.J. Watt. Phillips’ defense uses one-gap concepts, meaning the defensive linemen are tasked with policing a single area, which is different from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive line, for example, that uses two-gap concepts. This defense also has the ends line up in a shaded techniques as opposed to head-up, which is something that Watt is familiarity with.
During his time at the University of Wisconsin, Watt lined up at the five-technique on run downs before sliding into the three-technique on passing downs, and he’s been asked to do that often in Houston. It appeared that he wasn’t good enough to play in the five-technique on a consistent basis at Wisconsin, lacking the elite edge explosiveness to be effective.
In a recent podcast with my colleague Lance Zierlein at The Sideline View, Watt stated that he learned his “pass rush style” and set it up off his primary move, the bulrush, toward the end of his rookie season.
Now in his second year, Watt’s bulrush is still his dominant move, but it’s not his only move. The ‘arm-over’ has become key to beating offensive linemen with hand quickness. With blockers trying to account for his power, they often over-extend or bend at the waist, consequently leaving them susceptible to the arm-over. On Sunday, this was the case against the Titans during both of Watt’s sacks.
Watt’s second sack came late in the third quarter on third and five. With Tennessee in their own territory, a sack would be significant because it would potentially give the offense great field position. He would be coming from just outside of the guard’s shoulder on this play — the three-technique — just as he used to at Wisconsin in the same situations.
The guard fired out of his stance with three rapid steps backwards, but committed blocking sins with his chest exposed and his hands and head down. This spelled disaster for him because as he was attempting to account for Watt’s power, he instead got beat by Watt’s quick arm-over because his eyes were down and he didn’t get the leverage advantage with his hands. The arm-over consists of Watt using his left arm to slap the blocker’s right hand and then his right arm looping over to get past him.
In a last-ditch effort, the Titans guard tried to hold on for dear life and reroute Watt wide of the pocket, which didn’t quite work as quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was sacked around the legs by a falling Watt.
Watt has improved quite a bit since coming out of Wisconsin by finding his pass rushing style as he noted, and becoming quicker with his hands while adjusting to a new scheme. It remains to be seen if he will continue to dominate the NFL, but he certainly has the right blend of power and quickness to do so.