The Deep End
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games.
If the last six weeks of the 2012 season play out similarly to the first 10, the defensive story of the season could well be two sophomore defensive players: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Their play has been so outstanding that the question might not be which deserves the Defensive Player of the Year award, but are either worthy of the MVP? I asked Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com to break down their play to try to answer those questions:
Playing Time: Watt has played 89 percent of Houston's defensive snaps and Miller 90 percent for Denver. Watt has been so dominant that teams have had to start game-planning just to stop him. So the Texans have moved him from his favored position on the left. In 2011 he was on the left 85 percent of his snaps, but it's 74 percent this year, as the Texans have shifted Watt around to counter blocking schemes. Miller has actually spent more time on his preferred left side (72 percent, up from 67 percent last year) because his position and style of play means he is far harder to scheme against. EDGE: Even.
Run Defense: Watt plays the run better than anyone else at his position (including defensive tackles). His 35 defensive stops in run defense (tackles which are defeats for the offense) are four more than anyone in football. In productivity terms that gives Watt a stop on 18 percent of running downs; the next best is Justin Smith at 12 percent. Miller can't match those pure numbers (he's 12th in the same stat against outside linebackers) but that's not his game. His position on the field distorts those figures. It's much fairer to say when he makes a play in run defense, it's usually a big one; the average gain on his 24 tackles in run defense? Minus-1 yard. EDGE: Watt.
Pass Rush: Miller is the most devastating pass rusher at any position in the NFL. There is no one on offense who can consistently match up to him; offensive linemen are not quick enough to counter his acceleration. The 49ers' brilliant outside 'backer, Aldon Smith, has 43 quarterback disruptions this year on 292 pass rushes. Miller has 61 on 297, 41 percent more on nearly the same number of attempts. Watt's base numbers are excellent too (49 quarterback disruptions from 402 rushes). They come a close second in productivity terms to the Bengals' Geno Atkins, who has 40 QB disruptions on 300 pass rush snaps. EDGE: Miller
Coverage: Well, Watt doesn't cover, so this is an odd stat for him (he's dropped in coverage only 14 times), but there has to be a way to count his passes swatted away. He has tipped 13 passes at the line of scrimmage, more than twice as many as the next player. Since 2008, the most we'd had in a full season before this was in 2009, when Johnny Jolly batted down 10. Watt is probably redefining the way in which linemen will be taught to play. Pass coverage is currently seen as a weakness in Miller's game. He's average in that regard, but compared to the other facets of his game it's clearly not as well developed. Having said that, he's only dropped in coverage on 92 plays so far. EDGE: Watt.
In Summary: Many players on defense are having great years, but no one is as far ahead of the competition as J.J. Watt and Von Miller. Just as Darrelle Revis did in the early part of 2011, they are redefining what's achievable at their positions. Who's better? Flip a coin. Good thing there are five games left for each, so one can win the award they both now deserve.