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Defensive players lead the league

Jonathon Zenk, Sports Writer
November 14, 2012
Filed under Sports

The NFL season is past the halfway point, and the races for Players and Rookies of the Year awards are heating up.

Most people expect the Offensive Rookie of the Year to go to either Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck or Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. Last year’s Most Valuable Player, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is near the top in the MVP discussion again, along with Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

It comes as a surprise that  Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is one of the  leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year past the halfway mark of the NFL season.

Watt, in his second year out of the University of Wisconsin, has 10.5 sacks, leading the NFL. He also has an impressive 10 passes defensed–a remarkable number for a defensive lineman at this point in the season. Three of those pass deflections have directly resulted in interceptions. To put that number in perspective, that is the same number of passes defensed this year as future Hall-of-Fame defensive backs Ed Reed and Ronde Barber.

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison is second among defensive lineman in passes defensed with six. The NFL record for most passes defensed by a defensive lineman in a season is 13 by Hall of Famer Reggie White.

Since passes defensed were officially tracked beginning in 1991, no player has ever recorded 14 sacks and 14 passes defensed in a single season. Watt is on pace to surpass that by a wide margin in both categories.

He is the 11th player ever to have 10 sacks and 10 passes defensed in a single season. The last to do it was Vikings defensive end Jared Allen in 2007. He also has 21 hits on opposing quarterbacks and 17 tackles for loss, a tie for the lead in the league with Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller.

The last defensive lineman to win this award was former Miami Dolphins great Jason Taylor in 2006.

Watt isn’t the only contender for this award, though. Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman is wreaking havoc on the NFL’s No. 2 defensive unit. Tillman leads the NFL with seven forced fumbles, including four in Chicago’s 51-20 win over Tennessee Nov. 4.

Tillman also has two interceptions on the year, with both returned for touchdowns. He leads the Bears’ stout defensive unit that forced a league-leading 28 turnovers.

In order to overtake Watt and win the award, Tillman must keep creating turnovers and hope Watt slows down a bit. It was a big showdown between the two when they faced off Nov. 11 at Soldier Field, with Watt and the Texans coming out on top in the 13-6 vitory.

The other candidate for this award is Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. He is second in sacks, only behind Watt, with nine, for a team that leads the NFL in that category. However, Matthews was injured against Arizona in the last game before the bye week and may miss the first game or two after bye week.

With the injury, Matthews has an uphill climb to win the award. He also doesn’t have the players around him to help take pressure off him with the injuries to first-round pick Nick Perry and future Hall-of-Fame safety Charles Woodson.

After a season that was out of character for him with only six sacks, Matthews has rebounded in a big way. But he has slowed down in recent weeks, registering just one sack in the past four weeks.

However, Matthews has opened up opportunities for other players to make sacks. With Matthews constantly double teamed, the Packers had 13 players with at least one sack so far this season.

Other players to watch are Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings, who leads the NFL in interceptions and passes defensed, and Miller, who is tied with Watt in tackles for loss. He is also tied along with Matthews and Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware in sacks with nine.

This is shaping up to be a race  that will go well into the last seconds of the end of the season.  Watt needs to keep up his strong play to take home the award. Tillman and Matthews are right behind him and will more than likely be there until the end.