COLLISION COURSE WITH CLOWNEY

Texans prepare to take on familiar face against the Titans this Sunday

Jadeveon Clowney vs. Laremy Tunsil will be a must-see matchup. Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

In January of 2013, Jadeveon Clowney stood at the line of scrimmage as a member of the South Carolina Gamecocks midway through the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl. As a junior, Clowney ran up the middle of Michigan's offensive line to land the now-infamous hit on running back Vincent Smith.

The play catapulted Clowney as a top prospect on the list of several NFL executives around the league. One year later, the Houston Texans drafted Clowney with the first overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft.

The Texans paired the then 21-year-old defensive end alongside J.J. Watt to create one of the fiercest tandems over the past decade. Clowney would go on to play five seasons in Houston, becoming a three-time Pro-Bowler (2016-2018) and an All-Pro second-team member in 2016.

On Sunday, Nissan Stadium will be the place where Clowney and the Texans will take the field together for the first time since January of 2019. But instead of being draped in the Texans' red, white and blue, Clowney will be wearing silver, white, and blue as a member of the Tennessee Titans. For the first time in history, the two respective parties will compete as competitors.

"He's a very disruptive player, especially in the run game," Watt said about his ex-teammate on Wednesday. "He can knock a guy back. He can make a massively explosive play in the backfield. He can chase guys down. He's powerful. He's quick. He's fast. He's a very good player. You've got to be aware of where he is at all times because at any point, he can make a play."

The relationship between their former No. 1 pick and the Texans did not end on positive terms. The two parties failed to come to an agreement on a contract extension — which led to Clowney's jettison in a trade to Seattle.

Since he departed from Houston, it has been a tumultuous journey for Clowney. He registered his least productive season during his one-year stint with the Seahawks, and spent all of the 2020 offseason in search of the perfect team willing to give him a massive pay raise. He signed with the Titans two days before the start of the regular season.

While playing against the team who gave him away for two subpar linebackers and a third-round pick (2020), Anthony Weaver believes that the Texans will be facing a highly-motivated Clowney on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.

"Personally, I have a lot of love and respect for Jadeveon," Weaver said. "He spent five years here and I know he'd love to go out there and put on a show. I expect our offense to accept the challenge and go out there and put their best foot forward and try to shut him down. I expect him to be motivated."

Other than preventing the Texans from putting points on the scoreboard, Clowney's success against Houston will depend on the number of times he can get to Deshaun Watson.

Coming into Sunday's game, he has yet to record a sack on the season. In fact, in a total of 19 career games played since leaving Houston, Clowney has only registered 4.5 sacks — which includes two post-season games.

But despite the limited sack numbers, Clowney has been successful at placing pressure on the opposing team's quarterback. Through the first four games of the season, Clowney has recorded 16 total pressures that resulted in five quarterback hits, according to PFF.

"You've got to get the ball out quick," Watson said. "He can definitely disrupt the game. I've seen it with my own eyes for two years. Seeing him in college and then watching him in the pros. Yeah, he's a problem for sure. We've got to make sure that we know where he is at all times when he's on the field."

Regardless of Clowney's regression over the past two seasons, the now 27-year-old defensive end is still a threat on any given Sunday. The numbers may not show it, but Clowney's presence on the defensive line is just as effective as his tenure in Houston.

However, all it will take is for Clowney to make another vicious highlight, similar to the Outback Bowl, to reestablish himself as one of the NFL's top defensive linemen.

While he would personally love it, let's keep our fingers crossed and hope that Clowney does not find his stride playing against his former organization on Sunday. For a team trying to salvage what is left after an 0-4 start, the last thing the Texans need is to get burned by an old flame.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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