Throughout the 2012 season, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing Sebastian Vollmer seal off the right side of the Patriots’ line, even if it typically goes unnoticed. He has been one of the most consistent players on New England’s offense, while also serving as one of the best players on the team this season. So imagine our surprise when Vollmer seriously struggled against Cameron Wake and the Dolphins’ defensive line one week after missing the Patriots game against the Jets with back and knee injuries.
Vollmer let up a career high seven quarterback pressures to Miami, according to Pro Football Focus, and struggled to get much of a push in the running game until he had serious tight end help on the last drive in the fourth quarter. The Patriots only ran the ball to the right side seven times all game, while running 19 times to the left side. Vollmer was obviously bothered by injuries, but trucked through the game anyway, even if it meant giving up the team’s first sack in ten quarters. Vollmer let up two sacks in the game, plus another QB hit and four pressures.
Wake was the best pass rusher Vollmer has faced this season, but the rest of his opponents haven’t exactly been easy. Vollmer helped keep Robert Mathis, Chris Long and Bruce Irvin sackless, and held Elvis Dumervil to 1/2 sack. Vollmer has only been charged with three sacks all season. Two to Wake and one to Dumervil.
Now though, Vollmer faces the unenviable task of trying to keep J.J. Watt from swatting and obliterating his quarterback, Tom Brady. Vollmer will have help on the right side for sure, but unfortunately Rob Gronkowski has already been ruled out for the Week 14 matchup, so any tight end help he’ll receive will be from Daniel Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe, Aaron Hernandez or Michael Hoomanawanui – decent blockers, but nowhere near Gronk.
Watt is unlike any player in the NFL. He stands at 6-foot-5, 295 pounds and gets past offensive linemen with an unfair combination of strength, speed, length and agility. And even when Watt can’t get past his opponents, he’s smart enough to recognize that and get his arms in the air to redirect the trajectory of the football.
There really isn’t enough praise that can be heaped on the Texans defensive lineman, he’s an obvious MVP candidate. He plays a position that has no business piling up 16 1/2 sacks through twelve games. In the Texans’ base defense — a 3-4 alignment with two cornerbacks and two safeties — Watt plays the five-technique defensive end position. He generally lines up just on the outside shoulder of the right tackle. His chief responsibility in that alignment is to eat up space in the running game, allowing his linebackers to make plays. He has to fill the gap between the tackle and guard, and set the outside edge. On passing plays though, he drives straight through those gaps and eats quarterbacks alive.
In obvious passing situations, when the Texans are in sub package defenses — either nickel or dime — Watt lines up at the three-technique defensive tackle position. He’ll typically line up between the right guard and tackle, though sometimes the Texans will slide him a big more over toward the tackle. That’s where Watt gets most of his damage done with his pass rushing ability, and typically he’ll have to go through that guard and tackle to attack the backfield.
Most elite NFL pass rushers get the job done either as 4-3 defensive ends or as 3-4 outside linebackers. It’s very rare — like Bruce Smith rare — to see a 3-4 defensive end or 4-3 defensive tackle put up double digit sacks, let alone threaten NFL sacking records.
Pro Football Focus has been tracking stats since 2008. Fortunately, they sort stats by specific defensive position. No 3-4 defensive end has put up more than nine sacks in a season since 2009 and only two defensive tackles have accumulated double digit sacks (Ndamukong Suh in 2010 and Geno Atkins this season).
In NFL history, only three defensive tackles have put up similar sack numbers to Watt this season. Keith Millard had 18 sacks with the Vikings in 1989, La’Roi Glover had 17 sacks in 2000 with the Saints and Warren Sapp had 16.5 sacks with the Buccaneers in 2000. Watt has 16 1/2 through 12 games, and is on pace for 22 — 22 1/2 is the single-season record.
The Bills legend, Smith, is the premier pass rushing 3-4 defensive end in NFL history. Smith’s best season came in 1990 when he had 19 sacks. Smith was an absolute freak of nature, since he was undersized for the position at 262 pounds. The nature of the 3-4 makes you typically drive through opponents, rather than around them, so that lack of size for Smith should have been a major hindrance. It’s not easy to compare a modern NFL player to a legend like Smith, but if anyone deserves it, it’s Watt.
So how exactly can the Patriots stop Watt? Vollmer will need to get healthy fast this week — and the extra day of rest should benefit him — or he’ll need some major help on the right side of the offense to limit the Texans’ defensive lineman. One option is to bring an extra offensive lineman in as a tight end. Typically, the Patriots will make Nate Solder the tight end, and slot Marcus Cannon into the left tackle position. That’s a decent premise, but all that does is weaken the left side of the line, where they’ll have to face off against Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin. The Texans have also been known to slide Watt to the right side of the defense at times.
Vollmer will likely get help from his tight ends, and perhaps we’ll see Cannon or Solder next to him as well. It will be very important to see Dan Connolly or Logan Mankins healthy, though. Last week, the Patriots were without both players and Vollmer had little help next to him in Nick McDonald and Cannon. If Mankins and Connolly are healthy, he’ll get Connolly lined up next to him, if not, he’ll get Donald Thomas or McDonald.
Stopping Watt could be the difference in a win or a loss on Monday night, and since this game could ultimately decide playoff seeding, it could be the difference between home field advantage throughout the playoffs, a first round bye or neither. Vollmer faces a major task, and if he hadn’t struggled so much on Sunday, there would be no need to worry. Before the Dolphins game, Vollmer had been the best right tackle in all of football. Vollmer will need to reclaim that title, and if he stops Watt, maybe NFL fans will start praising him more.