Offenses at the mercy of Watt's end game

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2012 - 12:38 AM

His MVP-caliber work off the edge in a 3-4 has not been lost on the Vikings, or any other Texans opponents.

J.J. Watt has heard this before. Lots of times, judging by the tone of his voice. And yet again, this week, he was asked if he was aware that defensive ends in 3-4 defensive schemes shouldn't be doing what he's doing.

Yes.

And, frankly, that is one reason the Houston star is so motivated.

"That's one of the things I wanted to do this year," Watt said, days before his Texans played host to the Vikings. "Everywhere I turned people were saying, 'A 3-4 end doesn't put up big numbers, 3-4 ends can't make a huge impact.' And I say, why not?"

All Watt has done is redefine a position. The end in a 3-4 defense is supposed to be a run-stuffing, gap-minding, blocker-eating enabler for speedy rushing linebackers. Guys who take on double-teams so those pass rushers don't have to. Guys who do the dirty work, mostly out of the spotlight.

Nobody told Watt.

Or better yet everybody, it seems, told him. But he didn't listen. A defensive end in a traditional 4-3 at the University of Wisconsin, Watt was a first-round pick in 2011 who spent his rookie season learning a new position, totaling 56 tackles and four passes defensed while figuring out how to deal with the mayhem that occurs along the interior line of NFL games.

But that was just a warmup for this season.

In 14 games Watt is tied for the NFL lead with 19 1/2 sacks, leads the Texans (12-2) with 74 tackles. He has 33 tackles for loss, 38 QB hits, 15 passes defensed. He has forced three fumbles and recovered two.

Here's a mind-blowing stat: Watt has been a part of 84 plays this season that have gone for zero or negative yards. Since passes defensed became an official stat in 1991, Watt is the only player to have at least 15 sacks and 15 passes defensed in the same season.

Reggie White -- a player Watt, a Wisconsin native, grew up admiring -- never did it.

Watt grew up in suburban Milwaukee. He initially committed to Central Michigan, then switched to the Gophers when Brian Kelly left Central Michigan. When Glen Mason was relieved as Gophers coach, Watt wound up back at CMU, where he played a season as a tight end. Ultimately he switched to Wisconsin, playing the 2009 and 2010 seasons as a defensive end for the Badgers.

Two years later, Watt is having a role-defining season with the Texans.

MVP talk

"I planned on having a big year," Watt said. "I wanted to have a huge impact this year. This is what my whole life has been working toward."

Watt has become a leader in the clubhouse in talk about Defensive Player of the Year, as well as the MVP award. Watt, who is moved around on the line, can make plays from anywhere, with a nonstop motor and a nose for the ball. Just ask Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, who flirted with the sack record last season.

"What J.J. Watt is doing is crazy from that 5-technique position," Allen said. "That's like a once-in-a-lifetime, praise-God-that-thing-is-happening, because you don't see that very often. He doesn't try to get outside of himself. He does what he does. He has one move and he has a counter off of it. If he doesn't get there, he tries to affect the game in all facets."

And that's why many are describing Sunday's game at Reliant Stadium as a matchup of MVP candidates Adrian Peterson and Watt, two fellows who figure to meet a few times.

"He's unbelievable to watch on tape," Peterson told Houston-area reporters this week. "He's definitely a football player. God created him to play this game. I'm just pumped. I love playing against the best."

Said Watt: "I obviously appreciate the compliment and I'm looking forward to playing against him."

'Highlight film'

As the end in a 3-4, Watt figures to see a lot of Vikings guard Brandon Fusco, and vice versa. Fusco has been spending extra hours watching tape of Watt, though the Texans do move him around a bit.

His impressions of the 6-5, 295-pound Watt?

"Every film of him looks like a highlight film," Fusco said. "He's a big guy. You look at him and you think he'd just be a bull rusher. But he can switch it up. If he sees you leaning, something that will give him an edge, he will take it and make you look stupid. I have to be ready. I have to have the best game of my life. [But] I can make a name for myself in this game, you know what I'm saying? I look forward to the challenge."

Fusco said a key for the Vikings will be taking the action to Watt and the Texans with a good running game. Not easy, given Houston's No. 6 NFL ranking against the run. Watt has the strength needed to play the run, and the quickness to beat double-teams and get pressure.

He is the anchor of a seventh-ranked defense on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. That's his big goal, of course. Not winning an MVP award, not breaking the single-season sack record of 22 1/2 set in 2001.

But he will admit he does think about that record. Watt and San Francisco outside linebacker Aldon Smith each have 19 1/2, three short of Michael Strahn's record.

"I hope I do," he said of setting the record. "I respect Michael Strahan, but if you're not trying to break it, what's the point?

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