LOS ANGELES — Even after everything J.J. Watt has accomplished in football, he still relished the chance to walk on — and off — the field for his first game action since breaking his leg.
Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and the rest of the Los Angeles Rams' offense won't get any action at all in this preseason, but they insist they'll still be ready for the games that count.
Rookie John Kelly rushed for 64 yards and two touchdowns, and the Rams briefly debuted their new defensive stars in a 21-20 preseason victory over Watt and the Houston Texans on Saturday.
Watt started and made a tackle roughly 10 1/2 months after he got hurt in the Texans' fifth game last season. The chance to catch up with former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was just a bonus on an exciting day for the veteran superstar.
"I liked that I came off (the field) under my own power," Watt said with a grin. "It's football. It's where I feel the most natural. It's where I feel at home."
Houston's first-team defense looked sharp, but the Rams' backup offensive players put together enough points to win it. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney were long finished by the time Nick Rose missed a 57-yard field goal at the gun in the Texans' first loss of the preseason.
"I mean, they didn't have Todd Gurley out there, or Jared Goff," Watt said. "But we flew around. We had fun. We did what we're supposed to do. We had three series and held them to 2 yards, and we got a pick. We'll take that. That's what we expect to do with their offensive all-stars sitting out."
The Texans were thrilled to see Watt looking healthy and happy.
"He's really worked hard to get back to where he's at right now," Houston coach Bill O'Brien said. "I think he's playing at a real high level, from what we've seen every single day. From what I could see today, the first-team defense went out there and did a nice job."
Watt is a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but he didn't get to see the current holder of the award. Aaron Donald is still deep in his second consecutive contract holdout from the Rams.
Los Angeles' first-team defense also excelled despite Donald's continued absence. Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib all got their first action with the Rams early in the first quarter, and Suh managed to hit Deshaun Watson as the quarterback uncorked a long throw that was intercepted by Lamarcus Joyner on the Texans' second series.
But the Rams rested 10 of their presumptive offensive starters for the third straight week, keeping the wraps on the team that led the NFL in scoring last season. The decision all but ensures Gurley and Goff will go into the regular season without taking a snap in a preseason game.
"When you balance the risk/reward, we felt like as a coaching staff this was going to be the best thing for us," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "You do have 10 of 11 starters returning (from last season). You don't take anything for granted ... (but) this is what we felt like is best for our football team. Might not be for everybody. Might be disagreements, but this is what we talked about as a coaching staff, and this is the decision we made."
Alfred Blue rushed for an early score for Houston, and Braxton Miller caught a TD pass from Brandon Weeden, who went 10 of 17 for 108 yards with an interception after Watson's brief action. Quan Bray caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Joe Webb with 5:54 to play for the Texans, but Ejuan Price sacked Webb on the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt.
Rose's last-second kick was his second missed field goal as the Texans wait for Ka'imi Fairbairn to get healthy.
Pharoh Cooper caught a TD pass from Sean Mannion, who bounced back from an 0-for-5 start with a bad interception to Kareem Jackson. Mannion finished the first half with 10 consecutive completions, but he has been inconsistent in the preseason, raising some concern about the Rams' backup situation behind Goff.
Kelly, the Rams' sixth-round pick from Tennessee, continued his breakout preseason in Gurley's absence with another impressive game. He finished Los Angeles' 19-play drive that consumed 12:06 of the third quarter with a spinning 15-yard TD run.
Sam Shields made an interception in the veteran cornerback's next huge step in his comeback from multiple concussions. Shields missed most of the past two seasons and was dropped by the Green Bay Packers during his laborious return from at least four recorded concussions. He picked off Weeden's pass late in the first quarter and returned it 13 yards before celebrating on the sideline with teammates who understood the importance of the moment.
There were no apparent protests during the national anthem.
Texans: WR Will Fuller sat out with a minor hamstring injury. ... LB Ben Heeney left the field on a cart during the first half. He has been fighting injuries in training camp.
Rams: DL Ethan Westbrooks had a strong first half before getting shaken up on a play shortly before halftime. He went to the locker room early. ... LB Matt Longacre completed his long comeback from injury by starting for Los Angeles. He hurt his back late last season and then struggled with a biceps injury in training camp.
Texans: Finish the preseason at home against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday.
Rams: Finish the preseason at the New Orleans Saints on Thursday.