HOUSTON -- For J.J. Watt, rehabbing the back injury that kept him out for most of last season was a slow process, but the hard work is paying off early this season.
The star defensive end said there hasn't been one moment that has told him he's back -- although the body slam he laid on offensive lineman Russell Bodine to end the Houston Texans' Week 2 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals may have been one -- but after two games, he said he finally feels like himself on the field.
“The quickness and the eyes and everything, it’s starting to come back really well, and I think that as each game goes on, it’s going to come back even more and more,” Watt said. “Obviously, there’s a couple plays I would like to finish a little bit better, but I think that overall I’m really starting to feel good out there and enjoying it.”
He added: "Especially the last game on Thursday night [Sept. 14], I felt like myself."
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who aggravated his back nearly a year ago in the Texans’ Week 3 loss to the New England Patriots, spent most of last season on injured reserve, finally returning for the Texans’ offseason program in April. The Texans’ Week 1 loss was his first real game since his September back surgery.
“He hadn’t played since September of last year,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “It’s not like you can just snap a finger and you’re just back into the way you were, but with a player like him, it’s clear that he’s getting back to where he was. I mean, you can see the improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, and I’m sure you’ll see improvement from Week 2 to Week 3.
“He’s a great player. He hasn’t lost a step at all. It’s just a matter of having not played football with pads on and a helmet on and taking on blocks and playing 10 plays in a row. It’s a whole lot different than even practice, and it’s definitely different than conditioning and working out in the weight room and running on the field. So I think you’ll see him get better and better.”
On Sunday, Watt and the Texans will return to New England, where he played his last regular-season game in 2016. But he said his focus is elsewhere.
“I honestly hadn’t thought about [that]. It doesn’t really mean anything to me," Watt said. "I’m so far beyond all that stuff and I’m so far beyond the injury and the comeback and everything. I’m just playing football now. I’m just enjoying it and loving it and having fun. I just enjoy being an athlete again and not having to worry about any of that.”
Through two games, Watt doesn’t have a sack, but defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel pointed out how effective Watt has been, especially against the Bengals.
“I think that anytime you look at guys that have sack numbers, it’s, ‘When are you getting sacks?’ There’s a lot that goes into it other than that,” Vrabel said. “There’s a lot of times where [Bengals QB Andy] Dalton had two-and-a-half seconds to throw and he’s launching it out of bounds and we win.
“That’s not a sack, but to me -- you look at the last play of the game, nobody got a sack, but [Dalton] also dropped back and threw it in about two seconds and threw it out of bounds. So, to me, that was just as good a pass rush as anything else that we could possibly get.”
Just having Watt on the field has made a difference for his teammates. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus called Watt one of the greatest defensive players of all time and said the veteran takes a lot of attention away from his defensive teammates.
“J.J.’s presence -- a lot of people focus their blocking on J.J. [and] that opens it up for other people,” O’Brien said. “When they don’t and he’s one-on-one, many, many times, like you said, he forces quarterbacks out of the pocket, doesn’t matter who it is. It’s tough to block him one-on-one. That’s why when they focus their attention on him, it opens it up for other guys.”
And although Watt said he feels good on the field, he knows he still has some work to do to get to where he wants to be.
“I would like to finish plays better, myself,” Watt said. “There were a couple TFLs [tackles for loss] in the last game that I would like to finish a little bit better. Obviously, you want to get some sacks, but it’s just fine-tuning my game. But I would say finishing plays and making sure I finish them. Getting in the backfield is good [but] I want to finish those tackles and really punctuate the play.”