The easiest, surest way for an NFL team to make the playoffs is to be the best team in your own division. The best way to be the best team in your own division is to not let the best players on the other teams in your division beat you.
The Houston Texans won the AFC South for the second consecutive season in 2012. Defensive end J.J. Watt was the best player on the Texans in 2012. J.J. Watt gave the Titans beaucoup problems in 2012, recording three sacks, four quarterback hits, and six tackles for loss in the two games between the two teams.
One offseason priority for the Tennessee Titans was to upgrade the interior of their offensive line, with the biggest move signing perhaps not one of the sexiest but one of the biggest free agents out there, offensive guard Andy Levitre. Levitre, whom the Titans have indicated will play the same left guard position he played for the Buffalo Bills in 2012, faced Watt in 2012.
To get a better idea for what Levitre means for the Titans' ability to at least limit, if not shut down, Watt, I went back and watched that Week 9 game in Houston between Levitre's Bills and Watt's Texans. In watching the game, I had a strong focus on the plays where Levitre was matched up with Watt and will note those in some detail. I'll also have some general thoughts on Levitre's overall traits and what he means to the Titans' offensive line. All that begins after the jump.
The first thing to note is that both Levitre and Watt were in the game for all 57 plays the Bills had on offense. In this post, I will focus on the 11 plays in which Levitre was involved in blocking Watt in some way, shape, or form. In the other 46 snaps, the job of blocking Watt fell to somebody other than Levitre. That left guard Levitre blocked Watt only infrequently is precisely what I was expecting, though it wouldn't have surprised me if it had been a bit more than 19%.
Watt for the Texans played strongside defensive end in their base 3-4 look and generally left defensive tackle in the four-man sub package front. Since the Bills, like most teams, tend to be more right-handed in how they line up, Watt aligns to that offensive right side more often than he does to the offensive left side. That goes double for the defensive sub package look. The most important player for blocking Watt for Buffalo was right guard Kraig Urbik; similiarly the most important player for Tennessee will be the right guard they'll almost certainly select in this month's draft, not Levitre.
The first play Levitre was involved in blocking Watt came at 12:41 of the first quarter. He was involved in a double team with left tackle Cordy Glenn before getting up to the second level and leaving Glenn with primary blocking responsibility on Watt. The second play Levitre was involved in came at 14:18 of the second quarter, and the story was virtually the same except that this time Levitre gave Watt a bit of a shove.
The third play, at 2Q 13:41, illustrates the nebulous nature of these things. The Bills were a heavy screen team, and Levitre gives Watt a bit of a shove and intentionally lets him get past him to set up the screen. Levitre then successfully blocks inside linebacker Tim Dobbins on the play.
The fourth play, at 12:57 of the second quarter, is the first interesting one. Image? Image:
As I've done in all these shots (except one), I've highlighted Levitre's matchup. Yes, he really did line up at left guard on that play. Chan Gailey apparently (a) read the Smart Football article on pulling guards and/or (b) tried to get clever and ended up just getting cleaver, as the play lost a yard. What's really impressive here and this image doesn't really capture was Levitre's short area quickness. He gets a couple yards downfield and a couple yards over to the right by the same time the Texans left edge man gets a couple yards downfield. If you remember, Steve Hutchinson's (lack of) foot quicks featured in one of Chris Johnson's runs Week 1, and the Titans learned from that. Different story with Levitre.
The fifth play came at 4:26 of the second quarter. Levitre does a pretty reasonable job here of drive-blocking Watt and getting him a step back and off-balance, but Watt's remarkable athleticism lets hiim recover quickly and help make the tackle on a 4-yard gain on a run to the right side of the line.
The sixth play comes at the two minute warning in the second quarter, one play after Levitre false starts (with Antonio Smith, whose day went down in the books as a 0, over him). Image:
Watt lined up over Levitre. The playcall is a quick pass (Gailey's offense with Fitzpatrick as a triggerman featured a lot of those), and Levitre does not immediately get beat badly.
The seventh play came at 14:58 of the third quarter. Left tackle Glenn is the primary blocker on Watt, and an otherwise unoccupied Levitre is his help man to the inside. Glenn uses his help to the inside, where Levitre does a fine job and Fitzpatrick has a nice clean pocket to throw from.
The eighth play, at 14:52 of the third, was not Levitre's finest hour, as the image makes clear.
Watt simply walks Levitre back into Fitzpatrick with the power of his bull rush, earning a quarterback hit and forcing an errant throw in the process. This is one for Watt's highlight reel, not Levitre's.
The ninth play, at 12:04 of the third quarter, is a different story. Here's the shot:
After initial help from Glenn (#77), Levitre ends up blocking Watt at the point of attack on a run play. And gets a pretty nice seal on the play. Spiller has a crease, and that's all he needs, or would be if tight end Chandler could sustain his block on outside backer Reed. That this play only gains 3 yards is not Levitre's fault.
On the tenth play, at 9:50 of the third quarter, Levitre gets another shot in pass protection. How does this one go?
Rather better, thank you very much. At one point, it looks like Watt has Levitre beat, but Andy recovers very nicely and shoves Watt down, leaving Fitzpatrick with a good pocket to throw from.
The eleventh and final play of Watt vs. Levitre is one that will give every offensive lineman nightmares.
That's two rushers, Watt and inside linebacker Bradie James, and no help forthcoming as Glenn has his eye on outside backer Reed. Levitre blocks the near man, James, and Watt ends up with one of the easiest pressures he'll get all year.
Finally, I have to note one other player. My Football Outsiders colleague Ben Muth, whose regular column Word of Muth is a must-read if you're at all interested in offensive line play and want to see somebody who actually knows something about offensive line technique talk about things, has a recurring feature he calls the X of Great Shame. Levitre's X of Great Shame came the play after the above 2v1 situation. The Texans ran an end-tackle stunt that resulted, naturally, in Watt getting pressure on Fitzpatrick. Here's what happened to Levitre on the play:
Barwin crashes down from his end position and that's Levitre on the ground on his butt, earning him a well-deserved X of Great Shame.
But in case you were wondering just why the Titans were so all-fired up to take a right guard early, now you know, because they have to block J.J. Watt and Andy Levitre won't be the one doing it.