Is Texans' J.J. Watt the NFL's Best Defensive Player?
J.J. Watt shaped another game with his big mitts Monday night. The Jets put together a valiant effort in East Rutherford, falling just 23-17. Sure, it took a touchdown drive coming off a Matt Schaub interception and a 100 yard Joe McKnight kickoff return, but moral victories are moral victories.
And it could have been a real victory if not for Watt. His involvement was constant once again, as Watt was at least a part of eight successful plays for the Texans defense -- tied for the week high and a whopping 14% of the 57 plays the Jets ran in total.
Watt ran away with the week high in +WPA with 0.57, a result of his pervasive dominance to be sure but mostly coming from one swing play at the end of the first half, a tipped Mark Sanchez pass deflected right into the waiting hands of Texans cornerback Brice McCain. The Jets were 12 yards away from a tying touchdown; instead, McCain's 86-yard return set up a Texans field goal for a 10-point halftime lead.
That play alone generated 9.37 expected points for Houston and gave them a huge +30% win probability. It is the definition of a gamechanger. And this type of performance from Watt is nothing new:
Watt is one of the best defensive ends in the league across multiple categories -- he already has 10 sacks and 11 tackles for loss in just five weeks of play. But where he really stands out -- not just this season, but historically -- is with his ability to disrupt the passing game from the line of scrimmage. Watt is tied for the league lead in pass deflections with eight. Not among defensive ends or defensive linemen. Among all defensive players.
Watt's three pass deflections Monday night made him the 38th defensive lineman since 2000 (as far back as we have the data) to record at least eight in a season. His season is five games old. According to our data, Richard Seymour owns the record with 12 deflections for New England in 2003. Watt has 11 games to knock down five more passes.
And this is just one part of his wide-ranging defensive game. It brings a depth rarely seen at the position and has turned Watt into by far the most productive defensive player in the league this season. He is running away with the +EPA lead -- 49.7 to Tim Jennings's 32.7. He's making plays that add up to nearly a touchdown and a field goal every week. He's a huge part of why the Texans are the second-best team in our efficiency ratings, and at this rate, Watt just may be en route to the biggest season by a defensive player we will ever see.
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