Everything you’ve heard about J.J. Watt is true.
The Houston Texans’ defensive lineman can do just about anything at any time, and he’s going to be a problem this weekend when the Texans visit the Carolina Panthers.
Because the Texans (0-1) are in the AFC South, those who follow the Panthers (1-0) closely might not know much more about Watt than what they see on his weekly highlight reel. Carolina has played Houston once since Watt entered the league, and that was in his rookie year of 2011.
“He’s got an extremely high motor and tremendous work ethic,” said Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers, who will see the bulk of Watt duty Sunday. “He has a lot of finesse, a lot of arms, a little bit of everything. What doesn’t he do? This is going to be a great challenge, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Watt normally lines up on the left side of Houston’s defensive line, which means he’ll be going at the right side of Carolina’s offensive line.
Last weekend against the Chiefs, Watt terrorized Kansas City with nine tackles – including six for losses – two sacks and three quarterback hits on Alex Smith.
Tight end Greg Olsen, who could see some time helping Remmers block Watt, said even the concept of blocking Watt is a challenge.
“He’s big and strong,” Olsen said. “You’ve got to be physical and fire out and put your face on him. And then he’s also quick and has good hands and can use that to his advantage by change of direction, swim (move) and rip (move) and get you being off balance.
“And if you play it too safe and try to measure him up, he’ll put his face in your chest, and that’s not going to go very well. He’s a unique guy to have that kind of strength and power combination.”
Here are six things I learned from watching all of Watt’s 68 snaps in the Texans’ Week 1 loss to the Chiefs.
He can line up anywhere
Watt isn’t solely a defensive end, but he doesn’t play inside enough to be a defensive tackle, either. That’s why you’ll always hear Watt labeled simply a defensive lineman.
I saw Watt line up anywhere from the outside shoulder of the right guard to the outside shoulder of the tight end – tacked on to the end of the line beside the right tackle.
Against the Chiefs, Watt was mostly on the outside shoulder of the right offensive tackle. Against the Panthers, that would pit Watt mostly against Remmers, although he could slide in and face second-year right guard Trai Turner some as well.
Usually teams place their best pass rusher on the right side of the defensive line to go after a quarterback’s blind side. But Houston is so strong up front that it can use Watt on the other side.
Only twice did Watt switch with second-year linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and rush the passer against Kansas City’s left tackle.
Don’t put a tight end alone on him
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce had a big day receiving with six catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
In the blocking game, he wasn’t as successful.
Kelce had the unenviable task of blocking Watt on a handful of plays, and Watt easily worked around and through him.
Watt is the two-time Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and only six other men can claim that. You don’t block men like that with a tight end alone.
As Olsen said, just the thought of blocking Watt is enough of a problem. His blend of strength and speed can trouble a tight end such as Olsen – who always has been more of a pass-catching tight end, although his pass blocking improved this preseason.
The Panthers need Olsen, who only caught one pass on three targets Sunday at Jacksonville, to be more of a factor in the passing game, not blocking Watt.
If you’re going to help, be quick
Watt is the only NFL player to have two seasons of 20 or more sacks.
Lawrence Taylor didn’t do that. Neither did Michael Strahan. Or Reggie White.
So if you’re going to send help to an offensive lineman to help block Watt, don’t delay.
If the plan is to get a second lineman to pull and block Watt, he needs to be there ASAP.
On Kelce’s 42-yard touchdown during the first quarter, the Chiefs sent their center over to help the right tackle on Watt. That allowed Smith enough time to hit Kelce on a play-action pass for the long score.
During the second quarter, the Chiefs put three players on Watt – the right tackle, a running back on a chip block, and the pulling left guard. All of that gave Smith the time to find Jeremy Maclin for a 20-yard gain on an out route.
How much time did Smith have? From the snap to when the ball was released, Smith had 2.8 seconds.
Keep his hands down
Watt has 37 passes defensed during his four-year career, an absurd number for a defensive lineman. He earned the nickname J.J. Swatt because of his ability bat passes near the line of scrimmage when he can’t sack the quarterback.
I didn’t see a batted pass against the Chiefs, but Watt sure tried. He always keeps his eye on the quarterback on passing plays. He trusts his talent and technique enough that he looks not at the defender but the passer.
Against the Jaguars, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had no fewer than five passes tipped at the line of scrimmage, something he teased Remmers about after the game.
Watt has great timing on his jumps and fully extends his arms. When that happens, the offensive lineman guarding him needs to shoot into Watt’s thighs to try to keep him closer to the ground and out of the passing lane.
His rip move is really effective
The rip move is simple, but only someone with Watt’s size and power can pull it off effectively.
The rip move usually comes when Watt lines up outside the right tackle’s outside shoulder. He chooses his angle and goes at the quarterback.
When the tackle extends his arms into Watt’s chest, Watt takes his left arm and swipes down. Then he swings his right arm upward to get underneath the tackle’s right arm. If it works, Watt gets past the tackle and he’s in the quarterback’s lap.
Spoiler alert: It works pretty frequently.
Sometimes he beats himself
As great as he is, Watt can be beaten. And sometimes, he does it to himself.
Watt occasionally over-pursues a quarterback, and offensive coordinators can take advantage.
The Chiefs did, twice.
On one play, Kansas City fooled Watt into thinking he’d beaten the tackle by allowing him to get the edge but gained yardage on a draw play to Knile Davis to get the first down.
On another occasion, Smith stepped up into the pocket as Watt went flying by him. That left a gaping hole on the right side of the Texans’ line, and Smith was able to slide his feet and step into a throw cleanly.
Cam Newton can run away from him
Yes, Newton has looked a step slower than in the past, but if Smith can elude Watt, so can Newton.
Against the Jaguars, Newton was tackled on a zone-read rush by linebacker Paul Posluszny. Two years ago, Newton likely would have beaten him to the edge. The play was surprising considering Newton is healthy this year.
But Newton still has the escapability that makes him so dangerous in the run and passing games. And he has a keen sense of where the line of scrimmage is when he scrambles, as evidenced by his escape from a sure sack on third down in the third quarter against Jacksonvile, when he found Jerricho Cotchery for a 24-yard gain.
Don’t expect the Panthers to run a naked bootleg with Newton to Watt’s side – like the Chiefs did Sunday with Smith (Smith threw it away before taking a hit) – but Newton can beat Watt in a foot race if he has to.