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From Star to Bust and Back Again

With J.J. Watt sidelined for most of the year, Jadeveon Clowney finally started playing like a first overall pick. And he just might be the 16-point underdogs’ best hope for an upset against New England.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

If you believed the hype when the Texans drafted Jadeveon Clowney first overall in 2014, you would’ve thought that Houston was getting another J.J. Watt. But nearly three years in, it’s clear that Clowney isn’t Watt. Like just about every other player in NFL history, he’s not as good. He simply can’t do the same things as Watt, who combines quick-twitch explosiveness with power and technique to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines at a more consistent rate than just about anyone ever has.

That’s why, despite missing all but three games this season with a back injury, Watt is still actively the face of the Houston franchise. It doesn’t hurt that he hams it up for the camera the entire game, but no other player matches the star power that the enormous defensive lineman carries. But amidst the shots of Watt pacing up and down the sideline hyping up his healthy teammates, something happened on the field this season: Clowney started playing like a first overall pick. With the superstar on the sideline, Clowney quietly turned into the best player on the Houston defense.

In Saturday’s wild-card matchup with the Raiders, though, Clowney was anything but quiet. He stepped out of Watt’s cartoonishly large shadow and, with a batted pass, an interception, and four quarterback pressures, led his team to a 27–14 win. If Clowney can stay healthy, he’s going to be a star in this league.

That hasn’t always seemed likely. Few players enter the league with as much hype as the 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end did, but as recently as the beginning of this season, there were plenty of worries that the former first overall pick was turning into a bust. He’d played in just 17 of 32 games over his first two seasons due to a variety of injuries. He’d accumulated only 4.5 sacks, and he’d failed to provide anything near the type of take-over-a-game disruptiveness he showcased at South Carolina. If there was anything you could say about Clowney after two years it was that he was a very good run defender. But you don’t take a guy first overall to have him play the run. You need that guy to get to the quarterback and affect the passing game, and Clowney started to do that this year.

He finished with a career-high six sacks, which isn’t an eye-popping number but was just one and a half off Whitney Mercilus’s team-leading total. Plus, he showed up in so many other areas that the sack totals don’t really reflect just how disruptive he was all year. Clowney added two passes defensed, a forced fumble, and 52 tackles (16 that went for a loss) for the team that surrendered the fewest yards in the league during the regular season. Because of his play off the edge and from the inside, the Texans defense was able to overcame the loss of Watt — and weather a severely underperforming offense that finished 30th in offensive DVOA — to carry Houston to a division title.

Against Oakland, it was clear how Clowney helped the Texans do that. It felt like he was disrupting the offense’s plan on every single play.

On the Raiders’ second offensive snap, Clowney avoids a cut block — meant to get him on the ground — from Oakland left tackle Menelik Watson, who’d moved over from the right after Donald Penn’s injury forced him to miss the game. And when Connor Cook tries to swing a pass to the flats, Clowney reaches up and swats it away.

On Houston’s next defensive series, he swats another pass, but this time he’s able to tip it up to himself for an interception. What’s most impressive about this play isn’t the acrobatic contortion to actually catch his own tip; it’s how he clearly reads the play, anticipates where the action is going, and jumps into the passing lane to get the takeaway.

The box score was deceptive, as it’s been all season long, because while Clowney didn’t register a sack, he provided plenty of pressure on the quarterback. Midway through the second quarter, Clowney loops inside to bull-rush Raiders center Rodney Hudson, pushing Hudson back into the pocket and clearly forcing Cook to rush his throw. It’s almost picked off by cornerback Johnathan Joseph.

Later in the quarter, Clowney is about a half-second away from a strip sack of Cook, who manages to throw the ball into the turf just in time.

With 4:50 left in the fourth quarter, Clowney once again just barely misses a sack of Cook, as he dips under the block from Watson to run freely at the Raiders quarterback, who somehow manages to wriggle away and throw the ball into the turf again.

Oakland tried everything it could to get the run game going — a wise approach considering Cook’s struggles to move the chains with his arm — but Clowney was a major disruptor in that area as well. Early in the second quarter, he chases down the line to stonewall running back Latavius Murray:

Then, late in the quarter, Clowney stunts inside and meets Murray in the hole. The Raiders back bounces off of Clowney and stumbles backward into a swarm of Houston defenders, losing 6 yards on the play.

On the first play of the third quarter, Clowney rushes through the offensive line from a linebacker spot in the middle, cutting off Murray’s run lane and forcing him back to his left. That leads him right into the outstretched arms of Brian Cushing.

Later in the quarter, Clowney chases down Amari Cooper on an end around. He doesn’t make the tackle — he could’ve, if Joseph hadn’t been there to make the play — but it’s just another example of his extraordinary athleticism as he tracks a receiver all the way across the field.

Clowney played all but five of Houston’s snaps and was a force against both the pass and the run. He did a little bit of everything: He rushed from the edge, both from a two-point stance and a three-point stance, and he moved inside at times to attack the passer against guards and the center. The Texans used him on stunts, they used him on one-on-one rushes, and they even sent him in toward the quarterback from the middle linebacker spot on one play. He’s head coach Bill O’Brien’s movable chess piece, and he was effective in just about everything they asked him to do.

“He just changes the game,” cornerback A.J. Bouye said after the Houston win. “We miss J.J. [Watt], but he’s just that good of a presence. He shows you why he’s no. 1 overall.”

The third-year edge defender may never win multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards, but he combines power and explosiveness in much the same way Watt does. With Clowney getting after the quarterback and stopping the run, a couple of big plays from him seems like the Texans’ best hope for an upset next week in New England. With an opening line favoring the Patriots by 16, that’s a long shot. But even if their team’s season ends next weekend, fans in Houston can spend the rest of the year daydreaming about Watt and Clowney on the field together next season.