The Texans don’t need J.J. Watt to be the J.J. Watt of the past to be a dominating force that scares the life out of opposing quarterbacks– they just need him to be average J.J.
Our very own Paul Jackiewicz recently wrote that his view on J.J. Watt being a top edge defender was wavering.
It got me thinking, does Watt really need to be who he once was to still be dominant?
Watt had back surgery. Fact.
Back surgery is not good for any athlete that has the grueling back-breaking job of moving 300 pound men. Also fact.
Watt has never really been human when it comes to his scintillating physical abilities. That is to be determined.
Now that we got that out-of-the-way, with an honest view, what should we expect from Watt in 2017?
The three-time defensive player of the year has ridiculous career numbers. Watt averages 14.9 sacks per season, 26 tackles for loss, and 42 quarterback hits. Those are per season numbers. Those are stupid good numbers.
Again, those are the averages. Average Watt does that.
Despite his proclamation that he plans to come back “better than 100 percent”, it is highly possible that Watt may not come back the player he was.
If Watt does not come back to the full 100 percent he played with in previous seasons, the Texans should not panic.
If the Texans get only 80 percent of the player Watt was, they will still have a highly productive player. That player would still average roughly 12 sacks, 21 tackles for loss, and almost 33 quarterback hits in a season.
Even if Watt is not the Watt of the past, he can still be productive.
The defense however, has changed in a way most did not think would happen when Watt went down last season. That change will make Watt-whatever percentage of him that’s left-better.
The Texans’ defensive scheme has changed.
No, I am not talking about a literal schematic change from a 3-4 to 4-3 defense. I am not talking about the change from Romeo Crennel, who moved to assistant head coach, to new defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel.
The Texans defense was supposed to tumble without the three-time defensive player of the year. They did the opposite. The Texans were able to lead the NFL in yards allowed per game-giving them the top defense in the league in 2016. This was the first time in franchise history that Houston has possessed the number one defense.
How was this possible?
Looking at the numbers, not many individuals stand out. Linebacker Benardrick Mckinney was the only Texan to eclipse the 100 tackle mark, with a total of 129 in 2016.
The next best was linebacker Brian Cushing with 65 tackles. So how could the Texans have such a dominant defense with no real stars?
Team defense trumps all.
That’s what happened in Houston. A defense that is used to relying and allowing Watt to make plays had to learn how to live without him. In doing so, the Texans grew up as a defensive unit.
Watt is an incredible player, don’t get me wrong, but his style of play has cost the defense a handful of times.
Watt’s presence kept the defense from operating as one unit.
Obviously, Watt was well over the curve in terms of positive output vs. negative output. However, with number 99 being used as a defensive weapon, the rest of the defenders had to cover up his holes.
If Watt split the gap between the guard and tackle to slice his way into the backfield, he would often times gave up his zone of the defense that he’s supposed to cover.
Watt would bet on himself and often times the play ended in the backfield. Sometimes, if a runner bounced it outside-and into Watt’s hole- it would test the integrity of the defense.
While the play was made by Watt more times than not, the style of play he operated with caused his teammates to do extra work in order to make up for his carelessness.
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Watt, the Texans’ highest paid player earned that title due to his big play ability. This ability was missed last season with Watt being sidelined. The Texans’ defense only garnered 17 defensive turnovers last season-which ranked 26th out of 32 teams.
While the Texans’ defense did lack the big play ability Watt brought every play, they made up for it with the NFL’s top third down defense and a suffocating approach. This approach will not be abandoned by Vrabel’s unit this coming season. In fact, fusing Watt into the defense will be the most ideal situation.
Watt’s mindset has changed.
Last but not least, the man himself–Watt– has realized a lot during his time off. No I am not talking about his article on The Player’s Tribune.
Watt was able to see the Texans’ defense dominate without him. The man who literally broke his back carrying a franchise, now has the realization that he does not have to anymore.
The Texans have all the talent on defense to dominate.
This realization should lead to a difference on the field from Watt. No more should we seehim deliberately trading his integrity within the scheme of the defense to make a big play. Well, not as frequently as he has in the past.
While Watt certainly loves to terrorize defenses, he will see himself as a part of a cohesive unit. A unit that he now trusts more. Seeing his teammates ball out every Sunday and grow without him led to that growth in trust.
This upcoming season, the fuse between defensive weapon and team defense, will lead to an even better defense.
Houston’s defense has its play-maker back, however healthy that may be.
With the team defense used last season to suffocate opposing offenses mixed with the turnover and big-play ability of number 99, the Texans’ defense can become one of the greatest of all-time. They most likely won’t be brought up in the same sentence as the 1985 Chicago Bears, but they can put themselves in a similar category.
The Texans’ defense does not need the old Watt to be great. They simply need him to play within the system and let his physical abilities to terrorize the NFL.
Defense wins championships, and the Texans’ defense has all the pieces to garner that title.