Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney had a tough assignment in Week 1 against the Bears
He was transitioning from playing mostly as an on-ball linebacker in 2015 – a linebacker who stands on the line of scrimmage – to playing as a base 3–4 defensive end, who would kick further outside in obvious passing situations.
In many ways, his day was a success. He finished with 3 quarterback hits, 2 tackles for loss and a sack.
The Texans have got creative with where they align and how they use Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014. This is partially because of his extraordinary athleticism and skill set. And it’s also partially because of J.J. Watt consistently drawing double and triple teams.
The Clowney-Watt pairing is one of the most dynamic duos in the game. They can each align anywhere and everywhere, creating nightmares for any offense pre-snap and post-snap.
Clowney’s career thus far has been plagued by injuries. When he returned at the mid-point of last season he put together a very impressive stretch and helped the Texans assemble one of the NFL’s best overall defenses – finishing fourth in weighted DVOA and sixth in adjusted sack rate.
Last year, Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel got really creative, moving Clowney all over the defensive formation.
On Sunday, it was more basic. Clowney played with his hand in the dirt and the Texans stripped back some of their creative looks and used him as a one-gap defensive end – occasionally flipping him to the opposite side of the formation.
The Texans want to use Clowney as an interior rusher as much as possible.
Clowney has what the scouting community calls “alligator quickness,” good north-to-south speed but average side-to-side lateral mobility. His first-step explosiveness is frightening, particularly when he converts that speed to power. But as an edge rusher he simply doesn’t have the flexibility or ability to bend the edge like the game’s elite, Von Miller and Khalil Mack.
An example from Sunday: Here, on third-and-3, Clowney is lined up as the right-side defensive end working 1-on-1 against Charles Leno. Like they did so often last year, the Texans put Clowney and Watt next to each other – Watt inside. This is done knowing that it’s difficult for an offense to double team both of them and hoping that one, or both, can win their individual matchup. Clowney does create a good push and generates pressure on quarterback Jay Cutler. However, you can see how stiff he looks bending the edge, his poor pad level and how he fails to get to Cutler before the ball is completed on third down.
Clowney prefers to rush vertically, most often using inside moves to rush “straight up” at the quarterback.
The Texans have done a number of things to get Clowney “straight” pass-rushing opportunities. They’ll use him on tackle-end stunts to get him thundering downhill at a guard, they’ll widen his split so that his pressure pushes an offensive tackle toward the quarterback rather than him needing to dip and bend the edge. Or, they’ll move him to a favorable 1-on-1 matchup where they know a defensive tackle cannot compete with his first step quickness.
The Texans, however, should primarily use Clowney as a defensive tackle in all pass-rushing situations. Clowney may not look like a traditional defensive tackle, but he has the skills to thrive as a one-gap-and-go interior rusher more than he does as an edge one.
The reasoning is simple: It makes it more difficult for the center to double team interior rushers, it puts more pressure on the tackles, and it’s easier to run stunts/twists.
Split fronts have been used to great effect by Jim Schwartz last year in Buffalo, and by the Seahawks and the Broncos.
They’ve done so through the scheme and with special players. The Seahawks virtually pioneered a new role, using Michael Bennett outside on early downs and then moving him inside on third downs and obvious pass-rushing situations. The Broncos replicated that last year with Malik Jackson, who went on to become one of the top interior rushers in the league.
Houston runs a split front in pass-rushing situations, too. On the previous third-down play Watt was moved inside as the interior rusher, but Clowney was kept outside.
That package was deadly for Houston last year, often leading to Clowney getting free shots at the quarterback.
Like they do with Watt, the Texans should put Clowney on the “Bennett plan,” moving him inside on passing downs. Not only is Clowney a better interior rusher, but inside pressure and collapsing the pocket from the inside is also more valuable to a defense than edge pressure.
When a quarterback is pressured from the edge, he has the option to step up into the pocket if the inside is clean. If the defense pressures the inside, however, there is nowhere for the quarterback to go.
Unlike most edge players, Clowney has the functional strength to compete with guards inside. More importantly, he has the length. Edge players are often weaker than those inside and they can get bullied back off the ball. Clowney’s freakish length gives him a big advantage; he’s able to deliver a powerful blow to a guard’s breastplate before that guard can even touch him. Furthermore, there isn’t a guard in the league who can compete with his kind of initial explosiveness.
Moving Clowney inside would allow the Texans to get an additional pass rusher on the field, one who can truly bend the edge and run the arc to the quarterback.
For the Texans to compete for the AFC South title, they need to finish in the top 5 in adjusted sack rate. To do so, they have to be creative and get the most out of the Clowney-Watt pairing. That should mean moving both inside and developing the most difficult-to-handle interior rushing unit in the league.