TJ Watt’s become one of the NFL’s fiercest pass rushers over the last two seasons. Since 2019, no player in football has more sacks than TJ Watt’s 29.5. Not Aaron Donald. Not Chandler Jones. Watt sits atop the leaderboard. Explaining to you guys how good Watt has been is wasted breath. You know that.
What’s more interesting is the way Watt’s changed how he’s rushed. Since 2019, he’s rushed with his hand in the ground at a significantly higher clip than before. For whatever reason, Watt’s gone from a “traditional” OLB stand-up stance to someone who loves putting his hand in the ground, especially in obvious pass rush situations.
Some data to illustrate my point. According to our yearly defensive charting, here’s the rate in which Watt has rushed from the LOLB/ROLB spot with his hand in the ground.
|Year||Watt Rush Hand Down %|
Year-by-year, his hand-down rate has risen. From just one snap in 2017 to less than 10% of the time his sophomore season. Then it skyrocketed for Watt’s MVP-caliber 2019 and went up even more this past year. Watt now rushes with his hand in the ground more than he does standing up, making him feel like a 4-3 end more than a 3-4 outside linebacker. His coverage rate, which dropped under 10% the last two years, is more evidence of that.
Even before digging into the numbers, I noticed this trend with Watt on third/fourth down. The data shows in obvious passing situations, Watt is even more likely to rush with his hand in the ground. Here’s the data for that.
|Year||3rd/4th Hand Down %|
Again, similar trends. Didn’t do it once as a rookie. Started doing it his sophomore season. And now doing it more than three-quarters of the time in 2019 and 2020.
Make no mistake. This is something specific to Watt. Bud Dupree almost never rushed with his hand down. In 2019, he didn’t do it once. In 2020, he did it on one snap.
Believe it or not, the first Steeler who seemed to do this was Anthony Chickillo. The sample sizes are relatively small but in 2018, he rushed with his hand down 31% of the time. In 2019, that figure crept up to 36.8%. It made sense for Chickillo considering he played in college as a defensive end. Perhaps something Chickillo was doing got Watt’s attention.
While Watt is the most extreme example, he isn’t the only one. Alex Highsmith rushed with his hand down on 33.5% of his snaps as a rookie. If he follows Watt’s path, that number will increase.
Why the change? It’s hard to say. Watt probably feels more explosive firing off the line with his hand down than rushing while standing up. Maybe he feels he has a better peripheral view of the football. Maybe he feels he can set up his moves better when rushing with his hand down or that he’s less prone to getting chipped and bumped by TEs. Whatever the reason is, it’s impossible to argue with the results.