Hopefully, J.J. Watt makes it through the full 2020 season unscathed. If he doesn’t though, the Houston Texans need others to step up in the pass rush.
In 2019, the Houston Texans ranked a thoroughly-disappointing 26th in the NFL in sacks. Among squads that qualified for the playoffs last season, only the Seattle Seahawks (28) posted less total sacks as a team than the Texans (31).
Part of the problem for Houston certainly had to do with J.J. Watt’s torn pectoral that cost him half the season. His 4.0 sacks in just eight regular season games actually was good enough to finish second on the team at season’s end behind Whitney Mercilus’ 7.5 sacks.
As ESPN’s Sarah Bashop noted on Thursday, the Texans are a completely different team with or without Watt in their defensive lineup:
“Houston struggled to get to the quarterback without (Watt). The Texans pass-rush win rate with Watt on the field was 44.9%, which would’ve ranked 12th last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Without him, that number fell to 26.8%, which would’ve ranked 31st. The league average last year was 41.9%.”
That’s a tremendous drop-off: going from 12th in the NFL in pass-rush win rate to 31st.
Obviously, that’s the kind of talent and production Watt offers every time he steps on the field. It’s no accident that he’s widely regarded as a top-five defensive player in the league when he’s healthy — if he’s not the best defensive player overall.
The problem for the Texans, though, is they can’t just cross their fingers and hope that Watt doesn’t get hurt all year. After five straight healthy seasons to start off his career, he’s played a full 16-game season just once in the past four years now.
Someone other than J.J. Watt needs to step up in the pass rush
The Texans drafted Russ Blacklock in the second round last April in part to help jumpstart their lagging rush. The former TCU Horned Frog is expected to contribute right away at defensive end for Houston.
Additionally, the Texans are hoping they can get more production out of players like Charles Omenihu, Brandon Dunn, and Carlos Watkins.
What once was considered the strength of the Texans defense — the line — has taken a bit of a backseat since the trade of Jadeveon Clowney and retirement of Vince Wilfork.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Houston linebacking corps looks better than ever. Of the Texans’ 31 team sacks last season, 17.5 of them came from the linebackers (7.5 from Mercilus, 3.5 apiece from Jacob Martin and Brennan Scarlett, 2.0 from Zach Cunningham, and 1.0 from Benardrick McKinney).
Assuming the Texans can get more pressure up front from their defensive line in 2020 — and continue to get pressure from blitzing linebackers too — they could be a force this year on D for opposing quarterbacks and offenses.