Commentary

Texans find defensive tipping point

Led by J.J. Watt, no team is better at getting a piece of opposing QBs' passes

Originally Published: November 2, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

The idea sprouted in 2004. Wade Phillips was the defensive coordinator in San Diego, and he noticed that his 6-foot-3 All-Pro nose tackle, Jamal Williams, was particularly adept at batting down passes at the line of scrimmage.

"How do you do that when nobody else does," Phillips asked Williams one day.

"Coach, I practice it," Williams replied.

Every practice, every walk-through, Williams focused on raising his arms and altering the opposing quarterback's throws.

"I said, 'Well, gee, maybe we can work on that,'" Phillips said last week. "It seems pretty simple."

Simple, yet so underrated.

Now in his second season as Houston's defensive coordinator, Phillips has hammered home the value of deflecting passes. Through the first seven weeks of the season, no other team has come close to being as effective at it. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Texans have batted or tipped 22 passes. The next closest team is Seattle with 13.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherHouston's J.J. Watt earned the nickname J.J. Swatt thanks to his knack for deflecting passes.

Last season, Houston finished second in batted or tipped passes with 29, behind the New York Giants, who finished with 35. If the Texans maintain their current pace, they will finish this season with 50 batted or tipped passes.

The reason is simple: They practice the technique.

For the defensive line, Phillips' first priority is to get to the quarterback. The Texans are tied for seventh in the NFL with 21 sacks, five behind league leaders Green Bay and Arizona. The second priority is to alter the trajectory of the quarterback's throw. The results are tangible. Only one quarterback, Tennessee's Matt Hasselbeck, had a better completion percentage against the Texans than his season average. Overall, quarterbacks are completing 52.8 percent of their passes against Houston, lowest in the league. The league average is 61.8.

Houston ranks fifth in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 200 yards per game, and is tied for seventh with nine interceptions, three of which have been returned for touchdowns.

"Quarterbacks aren't completing a lot of passes against us because some of them are knocked down," Phillips said. "It's a passing league and a passing game, and you have to combat it. Defenses don't have many advantages. Everybody's throwing it more and spreading it out more.

"Normally we're seeing so many empty sets and the quarterback knows he's not going to have the ball very long. He can't hold it very long and doesn't have much protection, so he throws it quick. Guys know when to look and react quicker."

Nobody does it more effectively than J.J. Watt, who is 6-5 and has a freakishly long wingspan. Watt leads the Texans with nine tipped passes -- earning him the nickname J.J. Swatt -- including one against Baltimore in Week 7 that Johnathan Joseph intercepted and returned 52 yards for a touchdown. In the third quarter, Watt couldn't get to Joe Flacco, but, as Flacco released a pass intended for tight end Ed Dickson, Watt lunged at him with both arms in the air, deflecting another pass.

Phillips said, "You've got to be a little surprised" by Watt's production this season even though he batted 12 passes as a senior at Wisconsin. Phillips knew he had something special in Watt late last season, when he avoided hitting the rookie wall and got stronger at the end of the season.

"The last two games we played in the playoffs, he was phenomenal," Phillips said. "He had 12 tackles [14, actually] and 3 sacks. He dominated against two playoff teams. He started out the same way this year. Once I saw him play that good, I realized he really is that good."

The Texans are that good, too. They were off this past week but on Sunday will face Buffalo, where part of the focus, as always, will be trying to bat down, or at the very least alter, Ryan Fitzpatrick's passes.


INSIDE SLANT

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Steven SenneAfter a rough start in Denver, Peyton Manning has emerged as an MVP contender.

It took a couple of weeks, as expected, but Peyton Manning has returned to the Peyton Manning of 2010, and through the first half of the season has emerged as one of the front-runners for most valuable player.

In the first three games of the season, Manning completed 60.0 percent of his passes for an average of 274.7 yards per game, with five touchdowns and three interceptions. In the past four games, Manning has completed 75.4 percent of his passes for an average of 322.3 yards, with 12 touchdowns and just one interception. He leads the NFL with a 109.0 passer rating and a Total QBR of 82.5. This week, he was named the AFC Player of the Month for October.

It was always going to take time for Manning to return after missing all of 2011 and switching teams, but he has found his groove. And the MVP award just might be his to lose. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Manning is the second player in NFL history to throw for 300 passing yards and three passing touchdowns in four straight games. He could match Steve Young's feat of five straight games with such numbers when the Broncos play at Cincinnati, a team Manning has never lost to, on Sunday.

Consider this: The Broncos have the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL. Their remaining opponents are a combined 22-42 for a .344 winning percentage. A fifth MVP award is in Manning's grasp.

• • •

Consistency is not the norm in a league that prides itself on parity. But that's where the NFL is at the midpoint of the season. The good teams from 2011 are good again.

Of the eight current division leaders, six won their division a season ago -- New England, Houston, Baltimore, Denver, New York and San Francisco. If those teams end up winning their divisions, it would be the first time since divisional realignment in 2002 that more than four teams in a single season have repeated as divisional champs.

• • •

How are quarterbacks judged? Ultimately, by the number of Super Bowls they win. So by that measure, the 2004 draft class has to be considered one of the best.

The class of 1983 produced John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien, all first-round picks. Three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Four played in at least one Super Bowl. Only Elway won a championship. The class as a whole went 2-9 in the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger
Larry French/Getty ImagesAs rookies in 2004, these quarterbacks appeared to have promise. And how is the class of '04 shaping up?

The class of 2004 includes a pair of two-time Super Bowl champions -- Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning -- and two others who are striving to get to a first Super Bowl Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub. Roethlisberger and Manning probably have done enough to get into the Hall of Fame. Schaub's Houston Texans are in position to make a Super Bowl run.

Roethlisberger and Manning will go head-to-head for just the third time in their careers Sunday when the Steelers play at the Giants. Roethlisberger said that earlier in his career, he "wanted to do better than" Manning because Manning was picked first in the draft and he was picked 11th.

"But as I've gotten older, it's more neat to see his success, to see him getting two Super Bowls, because I think it just adds to the legacy of our draft class and all four quarterbacks, Matt Schaub, Philip, myself and Eli that were drafted there," Roethlisberger said. "I hope that we can play well enough that one day they talk about us as maybe the best quarterback draft class of all time."

There is work to be done there, but the class of 2004 is making a solid argument. No other draft class has produced more than one quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls as the starter.

• • •

Steve Spurrier wasn't a good fit in the NFL. The ol' ball coach was 12-20 in his two seasons with Washington in 2002 and 2003. Some college coaches can make the transition to the NFL effectively, but most can't. Coaching highly paid men rather than college kids is a completely different game.

So what Spurrier told Dan Patrick earlier this week was asinine. As talented as they are, Alabama could not line up and beat even the worst NFL team. Sure, Nick Saban has had 24 players drafted in the past four years, including eight last season. He is a fantastic college coach with superior talent. But the Crimson Tide could not compete in the NFL. The linemen on both sides of the ball would get manhandled. The pro game is much faster.

This argument comes up whenever there is a dominant college program. But Pete Carroll's Southern California teams would not have been able to beat an NFL team, and Alabama couldn't, either. Great college team. Leave it at that.

• • •

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireThe news isn't all bad for Tony Romo and the Cowboys.

It's not all bad for Tony Romo. Yes, he leads the NFL with 13 interceptions, three more through the first eight weeks of the season than Kansas City's Matt Cassel, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Cleveland's Brandon Weeden, who entered the week tied for second with 10. Romo also enters the week second with 15 turnovers.

The good news? Only three of Romo's turnovers have come on the road. And Romo is 19-2 in the month of November, the best winning percentage in history for quarterbacks with at least 15 starts. Additionally, the Cowboys are 3-0 since 1991 against teams that are 7-0 or better.

Up next for Dallas: the 7-0 Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. Seems like a perfect scenario for Romo.

The good news for Atlanta? After the Cowboys ended the undefeated streaks of Washington in 1991, Indianapolis in 2006 and New Orleans in 2009, each of those teams went on to win the Super Bowl.


ALL-22


The Eagles are flailing. They've lost three straight games, most recently to the Atlanta Falcons, and now they must go to New Orleans and play on "Monday Night Football." It could get ugly. The Saints have the worst defense in the league, giving up at least 400 yards every game. But they also have an offense capable of putting up points. They've scored 24 or more in six of their seven games, and the Eagles have scored 24 points just once this season and are tied for 30th in the league, averaging 17.1 points per game.

The Eagles' philosophy is that, to win the NFL, you rely on explosive plays on offense and on defense you rush four and play press man coverage. So what does the film show?

"What's now happened in their last four games, they only have eight pass plays of 20-plus yards," said Greg Cosell, executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup." "In their last two games, they only have three. So the offensive approach, the organizational mandate of how they want to play and how they believe you play to win, they're not executing that at all."

Quarterback Michael Vick has taken a beating on the field and off, to the point that coach Andy Reid issued a statement on the team's off day this week confirming that Vick is still the starting quarterback.

"This is purely a function of watching the coaching tape, and the tape was very telling: I don't think right now Michael Vick is playing with confidence," Cosell said. "I think he's been afraid to pull the trigger on throws that are clearly there and the design of the play. What's more important, and ultimately worse, is my sense watching the tape is that the Eagles are now calling the game to protect some of his deficiencies."

Hence, fewer intermediate and downfield routes, and fewer explosive plays.

The Eagles are 3-4 and on the precipice of being out of the playoff race. Reid and Vick are fighting for their jobs. A significant organizational change will be forthcoming if the team doesn't turn things around.

"This will be a very intriguing week," Cosell said. "If they can't score meaningful points this week, then you know they're bad. They're not playing a good defense. The Saints can't rush the quarterback and can't cover. If the Eagles were hitting on all cylinders, this would be a game they put up 35 [points]. The problem they could have is Drew Brees could put up 35 on their defense, and he probably will."

And Philadelphia hasn't shown an ability to be able to keep up.


STATS & INFO


Adrian Peterson was resolute. He promised he would recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in time for the start of this season. Not only did he fulfill that promise but, through the first half of the season, Peterson leads the NFL with 775 rushing yards. He is on pace for 1,550 yards, which would be his fifth 1,000-yard season and the second-highest season total in his six-year career.

How has Peterson done it? Mostly by running straight ahead. Peterson has gained 94.6 percent of his rushing yards this season between the tackles, by far the highest percentage of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Also, he has gained 404 yards after contact, more than any other back in the NFL. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch is second with 303 yards after contact this season.

So the knee has been fine, just like Peterson promised.


#theytweetedit



Co-sign. It's been a rough week in the Northeast with devastating damage and mass power outages. Football on Sunday should provide a much-needed diversion, if only temporarily.



And that was on Wednesday.



A lot of New York Giants and Jets were affected. Said Manning, who lives in Hoboken, N.J.: "I saw water coming over the Hudson River into the streets, and you see cars completely covered with water, and so obviously it can be scary." Indeed.


PICK 'EM


All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.

Arizona (4-4) at Green Bay (5-3), 1 p.m. What is wrong with Aaron Rodgers? As it turns out, nothing. In his past three games, he has thrown for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Packers 27, Cardinals 20.


Detroit (3-4) at Jacksonville (1-6), 1 p.m. Both of these teams are firmly in the cellar of their divisions, going nowhere fast. Lions 17, Jaguars 9.


Chicago (6-1) at Tennessee (3-5), 1 p.m. No one has been better in the fourth quarter this season than Jay Cutler, who has a 132.0 passer rating in the final quarter. Money. Bears 24, Titans 10.


Denver (4-3) at Cincinnati (3-4), 1 p.m. Peyton Manning has found his groove, and now he gets to face the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL. Broncos 35, Bengals 20.


Carolina (1-6) at Washington (3-5), 1 p.m. The future is now. RG3 vs. Cam Newton, and the read option. The Panthers have lost five straight. Redskins 24, Panthers 17.


Baltimore (5-2) at Cleveland (2-6), 1 p.m. Baltimore hasn't lost a division game since 2010, and the team is coming off a bye after an ugly loss at Houston. Ravens 24, Browns 21.


Miami (4-3) at Indianapolis (4-3), 1 p.m. If the playoffs started today, both of these teams would be in. Who expected that? Colts 24, Dolphins 21.


Buffalo (3-4) at Houston (6-1), 1 p.m. The Bills are horrible against the run. Expect Arian Foster to have a huge day. Texans 31, Bills 13.


Minnesota (5-3) at Seattle (4-4), 4:05 p.m. After losing two straight on the road, the Seahawks return home, where they are 3-0, including that "win" over Green Bay in Week 3. Seahawks 24, Vikings 17.


Tampa Bay (3-4) at Oakland (3-4), 4:05 p.m. The Raiders have won two straight against one-win teams and are 2-1 at home, but they're giving up 26.7 points per game. That needs to stop. Raiders 27, Buccaneers 24.


Pittsburgh (4-3) at New York Giants (6-2), 4:25 p.m. These teams have won four of the past seven Super Bowls. The 2004 draft was kind, giving Pittsburgh Ben Roethlisberger and New York Eli Manning. Giants 31, Steelers 24.


Dallas (3-4) at Atlanta (7-0), 8:20 p.m. The Falcons are rolling, confident, multidimensional -- and led by a quarterback who isn't making many mistakes. That's what Jerry Jones would like to have. Falcons 31, Cowboys 20.


Philadelphia (3-4) at New Orleans (2-5), Monday, 8:30 p.m. Eagles coach Andy Reid is sticking with Michael Vick, but for how long? If Vick can't have success against a horrid Saints defense, his time as the starter could be done. Saints 27, Eagles 17.


Idle: New England, New York Jets, San Francisco, St. Louis.


Last week: 8-5.Season: 69-42.


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