HOUSTON (AP) — Nearly 11 months from his most recent NFL game, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt isn’t hiding his eagerness to get back on the field.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year hasn’t played since he suffered a broken left leg against Kansas City in Week 5 last season. The prior year, he missed the final 13 games of the 2016 season with a back injury that required surgery.
With his recent string of injuries, Watt said he has one major objective if coach Bill O’Brien lets him play in the team’s dress-rehearsal game against the Rams in Los Angeles on Saturday night.
“I want to come out healthy,” Watt said. “I want to be able to go on the field and then come back off the field.”
Sounds simple enough, right?
When the Texans selected pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft to complement Watt, the duo was expected to menace quarterbacks for years to come.
Four seasons later, however, the two have played in just 25 of 64 games together as Clowney dealt with injuries early in his career and Watt has struggled to stay on the field the past two years.
This summer, Watt has been active in practice and has shown glimpses of what made him great in four consecutive Pro Bowl seasons from 2012 to 2015. Last year, despite the injuries, he made his impact off the field, raising more than $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief. The accolades continued to roll in this offseason when he picked up the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year as well as the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year honors for 2017.
Now nearly a year removed and feeling healthy, Watt has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the 2018 season.
“This year has been a lot better than last year,” Watt said. “Last year, we were up there (for training camp in West Virginia) for three weeks, then we were in New Orleans, and then we were stuck in Dallas with the hurricane. Just about anything is better than last year. This has been a good camp so far and we’re excited to have a strong finish.”
The Texans went back to West Virginia again this summer, but only for two weeks before returning to Houston for joint practices against San Francisco. O’Brien — who has been mum on Watt’s status for Saturday — said Watt looked good in the practices against the 49ers.
Clowney, who missed most of the offseason and training camp in his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery in January, returned to practice on Monday.
Practicing alongside Watt again, Clowney is just as optimistic about the defense helping the Texans bounce back from a 4-12 record last season.
“The sky is the limit for this defense,” Clowney said. “We just have to come to play like we do — week in and week out and try and stay healthy. If we stay healthy, I don’t see much bad going wrong with this defensive line and this secondary we put together. I’m excited about this team and this defense.”
Watt said he’s excited about Houston’s offseason pickup in safety Tyrann Mathieu, praising the new addition’s value as a teammate and playmaker.
“There’s guys all over the place,” Watt said. “We have a chance to be a very good defense, but it’s up to us to go out there and execute and do it. It’s easy to look on paper and say we’re going to be good, but it’s another thing to go out there and perform.”
While Watt might be chomping at the bit to get a taste of game action on Saturday, he said as a pass rusher, he doesn’t have any specific reintroductions to the game such as a receiver getting hit for the first time or a linebacker making the first tackle after a lengthy absence.
“I mean, I’m not sure I need to get pancake-blocked or anything like that,” Watt said with a grin. “You just want to hit the pads. You want to try and make a tackle and get back up. You have to get up, get back in line and try to make another play.”
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