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Texas A&M’s secret weapon on defense

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Texas A&M v Mississippi Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Myles Garrett is getting a lot of attention this offseason after a strong sophomore campaign that included 11.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and an offseason vision to improve enough to drop 20 sacks in 2016. The devastating combination of Garrett and fellow defensive end Daeshon Hall is enough to give most SEC offensive coordinators headaches before considering anyone else on the Aggie defensive roster.

But D-coordinator John Chavis has always been about utilizing the secondary to have a big impact on games and his favorite instrument on the back-end is undoubtedly free safety Armani Watts.

Watts had a brilliant 2015 season, leading the team with 126 tackles while adding six tackles for loss, an interception, two pass break-ups, and two forced fumbles. Despite his smaller size (5'11", 200) Watts was a key part of the Aggie run defense and the main reason it was remotely effective despite the fact that they were fielding a grossly inexperienced and unqualified linebacker corps.

Here are some of the ways that Chavis has been able to utilize Watts to bolster the Aggie’s “wrecking crew...

A million options on the boundary

Like most every other team in the country, Texas A&M plays a great deal of quarters coverage, and a key ingredient in making that approach work is a boundary safety that can play with enough depth to help the cornerback on curl, dig, and post routes while still providing run support on the edge.

Watts was fantastic in 2015 at playing with some depth and hesitation to murky the waters for the QB before flying down to the edge to force runs or make tackles when the defensive front spilled the ball properly or to clean up when they didn't.

Watts could handle run-force duty even when playing at depth, which muddies the pre-snap picture for the QB trying to determine where the soft spots in the defense are which is supremely useful for the boundary side corner who might otherwise get isolated and attacked.

More often though, the Aggies would utilize Watts’ range to play cover 2 on the boundary and enjoy the benefits of having a run-support corner closer to the action plus the additional help that Watts would bring from his deep alignment. They’d also blitz that corner while having Watts pick up the receiver in coverage:

Watts’ range was good enough that he could line up in cover 2 but then drop him down to replace a linebacker in one of Chavis' 5.5 man blitzes that was a lethal component to the Aggie defense. Here’s how that looks:

These are really nasty blitzes by Chavis that combine the overloading, instant-pressure of the Michigan State double-A gap blitzes with the tighter coverage of a man-1 pressure. The key is that each of the outside rushers is utilizing a “peel technique” which means that if the back releases out of the backfield they will trail him and deny the QB a hot read check down to the back in space:

Watts’ role here is to cover the H-back and when he starts in the backfield and ends up throwing a block that triggers Watts to fly down and get involved. The linebackers are just firing up the middle, the nickel and cornerbacks are in man coverage, and the other safety is dropping into the deep middle.

So this blitz works much like a typical fire zone blitz (most of which rely on man coverage these days) only it becomes a 6-man blitz if the back stays in to protect and it’s a touch more vulnerable to inside runs that break through the initial pass-rush.

Unless you have someone like Watts hanging around to clean it up.

Thanks to Watts’ range and ability to handle coverage assignments or making tackles in space, the Aggies could line him up deep on the boundary and the QB couldn’t be confident of where he’d be after the snap:

Clemson enjoyed a similar benefit from the versatility of free safety T.J. Green a year ago, it makes life very difficult for spread QBs when you can’t easily decipher the defense based on the alignment of the boundary safety.

Roving in the middle of the field:

As effective as he was there, Armani Watts didn’t play exclusively on the boundary but also got into the mix as the field safety. In that alignment he would typically play a deep middle zone, over a slot, or as a rat in the middle of the field.

The Aggies tended to like moving Watts over when facing trips formations so they could match him up over the #3 receiver and get him in the middle of the field. When he was free to roam as a rat in the middle he was dangerous both on passes, like the one above, but also as a free hitter against the run.

Naturally they also liked to drop Watts deep so that he could erase mistakes with his excellent open field tackling ability:

If Watts’ counterpart Justin Evans continues to improve his angles when playing in run support from deeper alignments it’ll only serve to give Chavis more options for where Watts might play on a given snap. If he lined up to the field with nickel Donovan Wilson they could also create a great deal of confusion about what they were up to in coverage:

The biggest challenge for the 2016 Texas A&M defense is at linebacker where they were very poor in 2015. Chavis’ major investment in the offseason, besides getting new corners up to speed, has undoubtedly been to develop their young linebackers to be able to take advantage of having good run-support players at nickel, strong, and free safety behind them and NFL D-linemen in front of them.

If the Aggies can continue to move Watts all over the field they can be sure that his range, tackling ability, and improving ability to diagnose plays and attack the ball will result in another big season. If opponents spend all their time wondering where Watts will be it’ll be that much harder to keep track of where Garrett is and perhaps he’ll achieve his fantastical 20-sack season. If that happens, don’t overlook the contributions of his smaller teammate roving behind him.