Darren Page, DLD Lead Scout
“What’s wrong with Jadeveon Clowney?” “Clowney is overrated.” “He can’t stay in shape.” “He’s trying not to get hurt before he enters the draft.” “Clowney only has two sacks through four games!” Unless you have been under a rock for the last four weeks, you’ve likely heard statements like this from fans and media types alike. The box scores tell one story. Clowney indeed has only two recorded sacks. He recorded 13 over a 13 game sophomore season. His tackle numbers are down as well. He averaged 4.5 as a sophomore and only has 3 per game as a junior.
So what gives? Where has Jadeveon Clowney’s ability to impact a game in such a significant way gone?
A thorough and experienced evaluator of football talent tries to give every single play an equal piece of the pie when it comes to their final evaluation of a player. One does so by watching, describing through note-taking, and internalizing every relevant play a draft prospect participates in. With experience in studying such things comes an understanding of the workings of a pass rusher over the course of an entire game.
The offensive lineman or specifically the pass blocker always has the upper hand by knowing snap count, blocking schematics, depth of the quarterback’s drop, and overall play design. Pass rushing is a craft, a game of cat and mouse which becomes much easier with a physical advantage. No defensive end can blow by or blow up an offensive tackle every play to put a hit on the quarterback, everyone knows that. But how often should a defensive end hurry or hit the quarterback? What does a productive pass rusher look like?
The most productive pass rusher according to Pro Football Focus metrics (subscription required to view premium stats) through four weeks in the NFL is Seattle’s Michael Bennett. Bennett’s pressures (sacks, hits, and hurries) total to 20 with a total of 99 snaps spent rushing the passer. That’s the most productive 4-3 end in the game today, and he’s only getting home once every five snaps. That should provide a decent idea of what top-end production looks like for a pass rusher in the NFL. If pass rushers were baseball players, they would be lucky to scratch the Mendoza Line.
Some of the best rushers in the NFL seem far more successful at getting to the quarterback than their advanced statistics suggest, but why is that? A particular cognitive process that poses a threat to accurate evaluation called salience is the reason. Salience means that when a certain event is attention-grabbing, it is far more likely to be remembered than an equivalent event that doesn’t catch the eye. So when Julius Peppers clubs a left tackle, runs over a back, and drills the quarterback from behind, it sticks with us in a way that Peppers getting double teamed on the edge and coming up empty doesn’t. This affects the way we view pass rushers when not keen to evaluate on an every snap basis. Jadeveon Clowney is being measured by the consensus football audience in a way few if any others defensive end prospects have been.
Typically, the audience of a football game watches for entertainment purposes and is watching the football. While watching the football, fans aren’t likely to notice and therefore remember plays when a pass rusher gets stood up and fails to pressure the quarterback. When they have their attention turned to a pass rusher like Clowney on every snap, they are likely to expect a higher success rate than is realistic, even for a once-in-along-while prospect.
What looks like a mildly successful outing to a casual fan watching a rusher work every single snap is likely to be a rather productive outing. Add in obvious offensive scheming to limit the player and he will appear to have an even smaller impact. So even though Jadeveon Clowney has been unblockable for stretches of every single game he’s played in this year, it hasn’t corresponded to a high number of sacks or tackles for loss. He certainly hasn’t made a splash play like knifing through a front, popping off the helmet of a back with a bone-jarring hit, and picking up the fumble he caused. That’s what too many are expecting to see though.
Instead, offenses are finding ways to make sure Clowney doesn’t end up on Sportscenter’s top ten at their expense. Offensive coordinators are doing what’s necessary to keep their quarterbacks upright and their running backs finding lanes by scheming around the most dominant defensive player in the country. Advanced statistics back it up. Clowney has had 86 true pass attempts (quick hitting WR screens discounted) through four games. He was double-teamed on 16 of those, chipped by a back on 21 of those, and had designed roll-outs go the opposite direction on 5 of those. That means on 48% of his rushes, the offense is sending extra help or rolling their quarterback away from him. Occupying an eligible receiver and a tackle or forcing the field to be cut in half puts a big impact on what offenses are trying to accomplish. Just by being on the field, that’s happening almost half of the time.
Much was made over whether or not certain quarterbacks had a fear of Jadeveon Clowney over the offseason. Whether it is fear, respect, or simple awareness, quarterbacks are in fact on notice when Clowney is on the field. Their offensive coordinators are adjusting their play calling to Clowney’s presence as well. The average time to throw for opposing quarterbacks Bryn Renner, Aaron Murray, Austyn Carta-Samuels, and Blake Bortles measures 2.15 seconds when Clowney is rushing. Those same quarterbacks got rid of the ball in an average 2.63 seconds with Clowney off the field. Almost a half second is a big difference when a quarterback is sitting in the pocket with a swarm of rushers bearing down on him and coverage often on the verge of slipping.
While everyone expects Clowney to put in a productive shift as it relates to sacks, hits, and hurries, he’s getting less time to do so due to offensive scheming. Compare the average time to throw Clowney faces to that of NFL pass rushers and expectations of him may change. The quarterback who’s quickest to get the ball out of his hands in the NFL through four weeks in 2013 is Matthew Stafford at an average of 2.24 seconds. The median of all 32 quarterbacks is Jay Cutler at 2.72. That’s a far cry from the 2.15 average Jadeveon Clowney sees.
In fact, Clowney’s two sacks have both come in very timely fashion at 2.13 and 2.48 seconds apiece. He’s not about to get a coverage sack any time soon, considering the way quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball while he’s on the field. On multiple occasions this season, Clowney has gotten free as a rusher and had quarterbacks slip out of would-be-sacks. Criticize his inability to finish plays consistently at this point, but he’s still just as if not more impactful than ever on what offenses are able to do.
The tallies as a run defender tell a story in their own right. Opposing offenses have only run to Clowney’s side of the center 30 times this season, as opposed to 68 times to his opposite side. Offensive coordinators are trying to avoid Jadeveon Clowney at all costs. When resigned to running to his side, they have put multiple bodies on him 10 out of the 30 plays or a third of the time. If not doubling Clowney, they have mostly been allowing him to come off the ball before pulling a blocker to kick him out, which is an easier and quicker block to make than going toe to toe with him off the ball at the point of attack. Taylor Lewan and Vincent Smith of Michigan have horror stories to tell as it relates to running directly at Clowney. Once again, just by having a pulse, Clowney is forcing the hand of play callers.
Everything previously written can be contrived to be one giant excuse for what Jadeveon Clowney has done through four games. The truth is that Clowney has been extremely disruptive and impactful to this point without even considering the way offenses are playing him. He has lived in opposing backfields, showcasing his exceptional burst off the snap, uncommon upper body strength, and a lightning-quick swim move. Even while offenses run away from him, he’s chasing down runs from the backside with speed that very few 274 lb. men have.
Despite the narrative national media may have to this point, one thing is for certain. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Jadeveon Clowney.