Some people call him J.J. Watt. Others call him “The Milkman.” A few call him MegaWatt, though the nickname never stuck, for obvious reasons (it stinks). Soon, we will all call him Defensive Player of the Year.
For now, I like to call J.J. Watt “The Defeatist,” because no one has ever been the cause of so many defeats.
The Ecstasy of Defeat
A Defeat is a statistic used by Football Outsiders to tabulate the number of big plays a defender is involved in. Three types of plays count as Defeats: a) turnovers or tipped passes that lead to turnovers; b) tackles for a loss (including sacks); and c) tackles or passes defensed that prevent a conversion on third or fourth down. Tackle totals can include lots of routine plays after 12-yard gains, while sack totals miss lots of other major contributions. Every Defeat is an important play by the defender.
You may suspect that Watt recorded a lot of Defeats, what with the 20.5 sacks and all the tipped passes. What you may not know is that Watt set the Defeat record for the past 20 years (the period for which Football Outsiders has reliable play-by-play data). In fact, he obliterated the Defeat record.
The following table shows the top six Defeat totals of the last 20 years. There is a tie between two playoff-relevant players at the bottom, which is why the list extends to seven names.
Check out the full list here.
Let’s unpack that table for a moment. First, when you hear people say that “Ray Lewis is not as good as he used to be,” they are right. He used to be the greatest defender of his generation, but for the past five years or so he has only been an excellent linebacker. (Lewis had only three defeats this season but a healthy 18 last year.) Second, most of the players on the list are linebackers because Defeats are a linebacker’s stat. In addition to sacks and tackles for losses, a linebacker can rack up a lot of Defeats by making third-down tackles in pass coverage. Finally, Miller’s presence on the bottom of the list reminds us that while Watt’s choice for Defensive Player of the Year looks like a slam dunk, it did not shatter the backboard, because another great young defender had a remarkable season for a playoff team (as did a third, Aldon Smith). If you aren’t focusing carefully, their seasons look a bit similar.
But the Defeat list shows that Watt’s 2012 season transcends “great” and achieves “historic:” 11 more Defeats than the next-best player, a Hall of Famer who was having a signature season, at a position where Defeats are easier to come by. Only six defenders registered more than 30 Defeats this season: Watt, Miller, Ronde Barber, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Lavonte David, DeMeco Ryans and Geno Atkins. As the table above shows, none of them were close to Watt. No one in history was.
Let’s break Watt’s Defeats down so we can measure their impact:
Sacks: 22. Watt is credited with three half-sacks among his 20.5 official sacks. Both defenders get credit for a Defeat when the NFL assigns half-sacks; Watt had a hand in dragging down quarterbacks 22 times, not 20-and-a-half times.
Tackles for a loss on running plays: 24, for minus-65 yards.
Interceptions by teammates after pass deflections: 5. One-third of Texans interceptions this year were the result of a tipped pass by Watt.
Third-down stops (not sacks/turnovers): 5. That’s three passes defensed/deflected and one tackle on a third down rushing play. The only reason this number is so low is because Watt produces so many sacks and turnovers on third downs that there isn’t much left.
Now, let’s mix in some other feats that don’t count as Defeats but are remarkable in their own right.
Passes defensed: 11. Only three of these count as Defeats because they occurred on third down.
Tackles for no gain on running plays: 13. For some reason, this feels like the most impressive stat of all once it is stacked on top of the others. About once per game, Watt stuffs a running back for no gain, and no one really notices because he already has a sack, a batted pass that a teammate may have hauled in and two stuffs. Only one of these no-gain tackles counted as a Defeat.
Here’s one last mind-boggler: Watt in the red zone. He has three sacks, two forced fumbles, six tackles for a loss, two tackles for no gain and three deflected passes, one of which was intercepted by a teammate and returned to set up a score. Watt’s red-zone big play production trumps many defensive linemen’s whole-field big play production.
Add Watt’s routine plays back into the mix, and Texans opponents average minus-147 yards when Watt is involved in a play: a little more than nine lost yards per game, not counting turnovers. That’s not nine yards below NFL average or below the “replacement value” of a typical defensive lineman; it’s nine yards ripped away from the offense. No defender in recent history has done anything like it.
Let’s wrap things up with a J.J. Watt diagram. To give Texans fans a ray of hope, we will take it from the Patriots game. And with 56 Defeats and about two dozen other huge plays to choose from, let’s look at a play that does not show up in Watt’s statistical record at all, a play where his athleticism results in a Defeat for a teammate.
Figure 1 finds the Texans trying to stop the Patriots on second-and-eight in the second quarter. The Patriots already have a 14-0 lead and have been dictating on offense early in the game. Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips wants to cause some disruption and get some one-on-one matchups on the defensive line, so he sends safety Glover Quin (29) on a blitz between the center and right guard while rushing both Watt (99) and Conner Barwin (98) from the offensive right. This is a lot of athleticism coming from one side of the formation, and it is the kind of thing Phillips can do all the time because Watt, unlike many pass rushers, can play effectively against the run or pass when lined up over a tackle or an interior lineman.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are setting up a screen on their left (the linemen to that side block, then release), but Tom Brady (12) wants to take a long look downfield first, even if it’s just to freeze defenders so they do not pursue the screen. Brady knows pass rushers will be coming, because some of his blockers will release their defenders to block for the screen. He just does not know how fast they will be arriving.
Philips’ defensive call forces the right side of the Patriots offensive line to make some tough choices. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (76) allows Watt to get inside him so he can focus on blocking Barwin; Vollmer may not realize that the right guard was eaten up by Quin. Any defensive lineman is going to get pressure under these circumstances, but Watt gets upfield so quickly that Brady cannot even turn to look for the screen to the running back.
Brady, being Brady, knows Barwin was lined up against Aaron Hernandez (81), who ran a flat route. Brady rushes a throw to Hernandez, but cornerback Kareem Jackson (25) arrives to clean up the play for a loss of two yards. Jackson gets the Defeat, but Watt disrupts the play and delivers a blow to Brady (not listed in the official play-by-play), with a major assist from his crafty defensive coordinator.
Plays like Figure 1 show the down-in, down-out impact Watt has on opposing offenses. Statistics like Defeats show that there is much more to Watt than 20.5 sacks. But really, 20.5 sacks are a heck of a lot. Watt would be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate even if he caused zero interceptions or zero tackles for a loss to go with them. It’s all the smaller contributions that make Watt the most important defensive player in the playoffs right now. The rest of the Texans aren’t setting the world ablaze right now; the Defeatist may be the only man on the team who can stave off defeat.
Editor's note: Mike will be doing a live chat on Sports On Earth Friday around 2pm EST to talk playoffs, NFL news, J.J. Watt's awesomeness, you name it. Link to come shortly.