But in Watt’s absence, the Texans played exceptionally well into the standard NFL next-man-up mentality, finishing the season ranked as the NFL’s best defense. A big piece of that charge, however, was the play of outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who led the team with 7.5 sacks and had four fumble recoveries last season.
Now, after Watt suffered a tibial plateau fracture to his left leg in Sunday's 42-34 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Texans will have to replace Watt’s production and presence on the field without Mercilus, who left the game with a torn pectoral muscle and will miss the rest of the season.
“Any time you lose any player, obviously a player of J.J.'s stature, it's always tough,” Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. “But you've got to continue to move on because the game [doesn't] stop for anyone.
“You think about it because, obviously, you're human and you feel for the guy and it's obviously a loss and it makes you do different things on defense. But at the end of the day, you've got to continue to play. It's got to be the next-guy-up mentality you've got to always have.”
Last season, the Texans not only relied on Mercilus, but also on the emergence of 2014 No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney. The defensive end was playing healthy for the first time in his NFL career, and had a career-high six sacks and 52 tackles. The defense also had veteran inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who is currently serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, and top cornerback A.J. Bouye, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars during the offseason.
“You've got to build your team that way, so if you do have an injury like that your play don't really drop off as much,” Joseph said. “I'm not saying we're going to replace J.J.'s level of play, but the next guy's got to step in and pick it up.”
Despite missing most of last season, Watt still ranks first among defensive linemen in the league in tackles (392), sacks (76) and pass breakups (46) since entering the league in 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Until last season, Watt was a constant presence in the Texans’ lineup. From 2011-15, Watt was on the field for all but 10.1 percent of the Texans’ defensive snaps. Entering Sunday, he was not on the field for 70.6 percent of their defensive snaps over the past two seasons.
“I feel terrible for the guy,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “But, with that being said, just knowing him and knowing the type of guy that he is, he’s an amazing human being. He’s an amazing human being and he will work extremely hard to be back, to be back to play for this football team. I know that.”
But just as they did last season when Watt went down, the Texans know they can’t feel sorry for themselves after losing the talented pass-rushing duo.
“You’ve still got to step up and play," nose tackle D.J. Reader said. "Somebody’s got to go out there and play. Nobody feels sorry for you. The other 31 teams in the league don’t feel sorry for you.”