HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – We’ve seen for a year now all the signs Texans defensive end J.J. Watt could be an NFL star in the making.
But maybe lost in Watt’s dominance on the football field is his knack for comedic timing and delivery.
When Watt was asked if his three deflected passes during Sunday’s season-opening 30-10 win over Miami were inspired from watching the U.S. Olympic Beach Volleyball team, Watt didn’t offer a hint of a smile as he responded in his usual no non-sense manner.
“I go to the (YMCA) every Tuesday and Thursday and play. I’m the outside setter and that’s where I get my success from on the field,” Watt said flatly before finally flashing a smile.
But there was nothing funny about Watt’s game-changing performance Sunday or the fact that the second-year player out of Wisconsin is well on his way to becoming an unstoppable force along the Texans defensive line.
Facing a rookie right tackle in Miami’s Jonathan Martin and a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, Watt took full advantage en route to a dominating outing to start the season. Watt led all down linemen with three tackles, 1.5 sacks, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries.
But he will be remembered most for two incredible pass deflections that resulted in interceptions for the Texans defense on back-to-back drives. The first deflection was corralled by linebacker Brian Cushing and turned into a 14-yard touchdown run by Arian Foster.
Then on very first play from scrimmage of the Dolphins next possession, Watt again got his hand up and deflected a Tannehill pass that this time was intercepted by cornerback Kareem Jackson at the Miami 27. Two plays later, the Texans had a 17-3 lead after Foster ran in from two yards out.
Incredibly the Texans forced four turnovers on four consecutive drives and produced 24 points off of them in the second quarter, but Watt’s deflections were the game changers that seized the momentum for the home team at Reliant Stadium.
“Obviously interceptions are huge, so those two that got picked off, those were big plays,” said Watt. “That was great for our team.”
It was made more remarkable by the fact Watt was playing in a game situation for the first time this season after suffering an elbow injury during training camp that forced him to miss all four preseason games. And he is still wearing a restrictive elbow brace.
Watt looked in mid-season form Sunday and picked up right where he left off in last season’s playoffs, deflecting passes at the line scrimmage. The only thing separating Watt from his late-season form is he wasn’t intercepting them himself Sunday though the one Cushing got hold of could have easily been Watt’s pick.
“He’s got confidence in that,” said Texans coach Gary Kubiak. “The greatest thing you can do as a D-lineman when you can’t get to the quarterback is get your hands up. It’s easy to say, but it’s hard to teach.”
Watt has made a habit of getting his long arms up in practice and interrupting passes at the line scrimmage. It’s paying off in the games big time where he is clearly changing how opposing quarterbacks want to deliver the ball.
“J.J. do that every day in practice,” said Texans defensive end Antonio Smith. “That’s something that (defensive line coach Bill Kollar) teaches and it doesn’t happen by accident. It isn’t (Watt) just randomly throwing his hands up in the air, it’s a technique Bill coaches and it works.”
But obviously it takes a special athlete to bring it all together in a game and that is certainly what Watt is rounding into. Faced with one-on-one blocking at the line scrimmage, Watt got great push and was in Tannehill’s face way more than the Dolphins would have liked. And when faced with double teams Watt continued to make the day tough on Tannehill by getting his hands up high.
“Once you start to work on it and once you start to understand a quarterback’s rhythm, you see his eyes and you see his arm motion you can start to figure out when he’s going to throw it,” Watt said. “You know you are going to get stuffed sometimes as a pass rusher so when you get stuffed you throw your hands up and try to do anything you can do to try to make a play and that’s when you have success.”
If there was any concern that his strong rookie season was any type of fluke that though was dispelled in a dominating performance to start off his second season. It was made even more impressive knowing Watt didn’t have quite the conditioning as most around him because of limited snaps in training camp and no preseason yet he stood out most of the afternoon.
“He’s just an excellent football player, very well conditioned and he played a lot of football today,” Kubiak said. “He’s gradually turning into a great player very quickly.”