J.J. Watt wrecks games. Not just quarterbacks or running backs or anyone with the misfortune of having a football in his hands as the 6-foot-5, 289-pound human tornado wearing No. 99 bears down on him.
Entire games have fallen victim to the mayhem the Houston Texans’ defensive end/tackle is capable of creating.
“He ruined the game last year,” Buffalo Bills left offensive tackle Cordy Glenn said Wednesday. The reference was to Watt’s overall harassment of EJ Manuel, punctuated by an interception of a screen pass and 80-yard return for a touchdown that led to a 23-17 Bills loss at Houston.
The play, which effectively ended Manuel’s days as a starting quarterback in the NFL, serves as a stark reminder of what could be in store for those with the unenviable task of trying to block Watt on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
So are his NFL-leading 13.5 sacks, which have contributed plenty to the Texans’ four-game win streak and made Watt the odds-on favorite to win a third NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award and a legitimate consideration for league MVP. He is 1.5 sacks away from his third 15-sack season, putting him in a tie for the second-most 15-sack seasons in NFL history. Watt has a streak of five games with at least one sack for the fifth time in his career.
“He is probably the top player in the league,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said.
Veteran left guard Richie Incognito wasn’t with the Bills (or any NFL team) last season, but he has gone against Watt enough times to have a thorough understanding of what makes him so good.
“Dynamic play-maker, very disruptive, constantly making plays – hitting the quarterback, making tackles off the backside,” Incognito said. “He’s the best we have in this league right now.”
“When you play against Tom Brady, you do a little different stuff coverage-wise,” center Eric Wood said. “When you play against certain receivers, you do different stuff. It’s rare that a D-end/D-tackle garners that attention, but when he’s one of the best players in the league, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
The first step is figuring out where Watt will line up. Sometimes, he’s at end. Sometimes, he’s at tackle. Although he generally lines up in front of the right offensive tackle, every lineman could end up facing Watt at some point during the course of a game.
“He’s very unconventional in what he does,” Incognito said. “For instance, they may be bringing a blitz. In every other defense, he’ll be a D-end and he’ll have to scrape to the B gap or the A gap. And with him, they’ll be bringing that blitz and he’ll dipsy doodle and come off the back edge and make a play.”
The fact the Bills have a more mobile quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, who is much better able to elude pass-rushers than Manuel, won’t change their blocking schemes against Watt and doesn’t necessarily provide an advantage.
As Incognito pointed out, “That’s kind of extracurricular stuff, that kind of stuff just happens. We don’t go in with a plan and say, ‘All right, get Watt here and then Tyrod’s going to run it here.’ Those things kind of just naturally open up. Tyrod knows, with our protections, where we’re sliding and kind of where the holes are going to be if he does need to take off. But J.J. is so dynamic, he gets to the quarterback so fast.”
Watt is so good that the Texans give him the freedom to pretty much line up wherever he chooses. The constant goal is to find a mismatch that he can exploit.
“If you have a rookie out there, if you have a weak link, he’s going to try to expose it,” Wood said, knowing full well the Bills have a rookie at right guard in John Miller, who was unable to practice Wednesday while still recovering from an ankle injury that kept him out of last Sunday’s game at Kansas City.
Veteran Kraig Urbik might again start in Miller’s place, but that won’t change the fact the Bills must devote extra blocking attention to Watt. “It’ll be our best job to not really give him a weak link and be ready for him wherever he lines up,” Wood said.
That won’t be the Bills’ only concern.
Watt’s exceptional skills and intelligence – along with his off-the-charts combination of size, strength and speed – allow him to take advantage of even the slightest flaw in an offensive lineman’s performance. Being anything less than completely focused on every snap will likely bring disastrous results.
“You’ve got to have perfect technique,” Wood said. “You lunge in any way, he’s going to expose you. If you play soft, he’s going to expose you. So you have to be perfect on your technique to put yourself in a position to succeed.”
Watt isn’t impossible to block. The greatest defensive players in NFL history, such as Hall-of-Famers Lawrence Taylor and Bruce Smith, were occasionally stopped in the prime of their careers.
Offenses deal with Watt the same way they’ve always dealt with dominant opponents: Double-team him on pass plays and run the ball either directly at him or away from him.
“It’s about winning matchups against him and those are difficult,” Wood said. “But he’s been blocked this year.”
Of course, using two people to block Watt can have consequences, because others within the Texans’ defensive front find themselves in one-on-one situations.
Players like linebackers Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney “have benefited from that,” Wood said. “And I’m sure Clowney’s learned a lot from him” since joining the Texans as the top overall pick of last year’s draft. “As the season’s gone on, you kind of see a few of J.J.’s moves showing up in his game.
“It seems like his effort’s contagious, with guys hustling to the ball, and that sticks out on film. I’m sure they’re following his lead, because he’s the ringleader over there.”