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Reintroducing J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans’ Modern Day Ballhawk

By: Stats Perform
How STATS’ X-Info Data Shows The NFL’s Most Complete Defender Makes the Texans the Right Kind of Toxic

Bring up the term ballhawk, and some people think of those guys who spend their lives chasing foul balls at baseball stadiums. Specify it in a football context, and there’s a bit more money in the unofficial profession.

Names of safeties like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu start to come up, but even that might not be making the best use of the word in today’s NFL. STATS measures such production with a combination of interceptions, passes defensed, forced and recovered fumbles, and tackles for a loss. Ballhawk is one of the simpler metrics in STATS ICE, which uses STATS X-Info data to provide teams and media with an advanced and engaging analytics platform.

With J.J. Watt playing three games in 2016, Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David led the NFL with 27 ballhawks, which is not unlike running the 100 meters while Usain Bolt sleeps through his alarm. Watt had 41 in 2015 – 12 more than the next-best, Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters. That’s a comparatively tame gap when considering 2013 when Watt (48) led Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston by 16.

Even this is probably selling Watt short in terms of defensive value.

Everyone knows Watt gets to the quarterback. His 76 career sacks lead football over the past six seasons regardless of that three-game 2016. Dating to the start of 2013 – his first Defensive Player of the Year-winning season – Watt has 50 sacks, but those account for 1.67 percent of his 3,011 snaps, so there must be better ways to measure a defensive end’s production. Dig a bit deeper into X-Info data to consider pressures and stuffs.

Watt led football in pressures in 2015 – by no small margin. His 83 were 21 better than the second-place finisher, Oakland linebacker Khalil Mack. To give an idea of the disparity, Mack (62) and tied-for-10th Muhammad Wilkerson and Everson Griffen (57) were separated by five pressures. In 2014, Watt’s 95 dwarfed Justin Houston’s 57. Add up fourth-place Carlos Dunlap (47) and fifth-place Von Miller (46), and you’re still short of Watt’s pressures.

For stuffs, Watt led the league in 2015 with 21.5, which was three ahead of next-best Ndamukong Suh. For another gap of that size, you have to look down to seventh. You get the idea. But how does it all quantifiably help the Houston Texans win games?

Peruse STATS’ 2017 NFL white paper, and you’ll see the Texans struggled with toxic differential – a telltale metric of success for teams in 2016. Toxic differential defines balance, weighing takeaways and giveaways while tying it to explosive-play ability and the amount of explosive plays allowed. Essentially, it’s balancing turnovers and big plays that have the potential to be game-changing moments.

New England finished atop the NFL with a plus-32 toxic differential. The Patriots’ Super Bowl opponent, Atlanta, finished second at plus-30. See a trend? The Raiders went from tied for last in 2014 (minus-34) to 14th in 2015 (plus-1) to tie for fifth in 2016 (+18) and improved their record from 3-13 to 7-9 to 12-4.

Of last year’s 12 playoff teams, only three had a negative toxic differential. Houston’s -11 was the worst, followed by Detroit (-4) and Miami (-2), and those teams had the three worst records among playoff teams. Making the playoffs from the AFC South didn’t mean much.

It’s conservative to say Watt eliminates big plays from opposing offenses and accounts for takeaways, so things might have come a bit easier in the extremely winnable division had Watt been around for more than three games.

There’s measurably no better player in football on the defensive side of the ball to help that number.