Hot Watt looking to break mold of 3-4 ends

Houston's J.J. Watt leads the AFC with 5.5 sacks, and sees room for improvement. Brett Davis/US Presswire

J.J. Watt isn’t pretending he’s not been productive.

But when the Houston Texans defensive end looks at film of his performance through three games -- three games that include an AFC-best 5.5 sacks, seven tackles for a loss, five passes defensed and a fumble recovery -- he sees what hasn’t happened more than what has.

“I’m confident in my game and the best part about it. And the most exciting thing for me right now is watching the film, I still have so many things, so much more that I can do to get better,” he said. “I can’t wait to improve ...

“Obviously the sacks are nice, and the batted balls and the TFLs [tackles for loss], but I am still leaving a few plays on the field. That’s what excites me, and those are the plays that I focus on.”

Sunday, he’ll bounce from one side to the other against the Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium, typically going to the formation’s strong side and working with outside linebacker Brooks Reed behind him.

Tennessee has been poor in terms of run-blocking but has protected the passer well. However, the Titans have not faced anyone playing as well as Watt.

“He fits that system perfectly,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “I was upset when they got him, because I knew we were going to face him twice a year. The guy makes plays. He fits that scheme perfectly, probably better than most do …

“We’re going to have our hands full with him this week, and when we play them in the future. He reminds me of [San Francisco’s Justin Smith]. He’s one of the guys that stands out as being a stud in that system, which is a very similar system.”

Such production from a 3-4 end is an attention-grabber, though Watt and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips say it shouldn’t be.

Perhaps it’s because we tend to think of a 3-4 end as a two-gapper, responsible primarily for taking up blockers and freeing linebackers to make plays.

Aaron Smith, the former Pittsburgh Steelers end, for example.

“Houston is not the normal 3-4,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “They are an attacking defense, and they don’t ask their DEs to two-gap like, say, Aaron Smith in his prime. Really, Houston is an attacking 5-2 more than a traditional 3-4. But ends in just about any 3-4 should be able to bump inside on throwing downs and pressure the QB."

What Smith did for the Steelers is not Watt’s role, or the role of Antonio Smith, Houston’s weakside end, in its base package.

“I’m trying to break the mold,” Watt said. “A lot of people keep telling me that, that we’re not allowed to make plays or we’re not supposed to make plays. One of the things is that Coach Phillips puts me in great position to have success, he gives me great opportunities. And I think another thing is just having the belief, and not buying into this thing where you can’t make plays.

“I mean, I don’t know why people say that you can’t make plays. If you bust your tail and you’re rushing the passer, you’re going to get a sack. If you’re chasing down a runner from the back side and you beat your blocker, you’re going to get a TFL. I don’t see why you have to be a block-eater.”

Watt doesn’t like hearing that what Houston’s running isn’t really a 3-4. We sometimes paint it as a 5-2 or some wild twist on a conventional 3-4. But as the league evolves, maybe we are too quick to label something conventional. If defenses like Houston’s and San Francisco’s are so strong, maybe they redefine convention.

“I play the 5-technique [shaded outside the tackle] and the 3-technique [shaded outside a guard] just like all the other 3-4 ends,” Watt said. “We’re a 3-4, and I play the same position as those guys.”

Phillips jumped in when I started to ask about uncommon production from a 3-4 end.

What about Oilers Hall of Fame Elvin Bethea, who Bum Phillips deployed in a similar fashion? What about Bruce Smith, who Wade Phillips coached in Buffalo?

“That’s why we don’t play a conventional 3-4,” Phillips said. “In the Phillips’ 3-4, my dad’s 3-4, he said, ‘Elvin Bethea isn’t going to play two-gap, he can stunt, he can move, let’s get him on the move where he can make plays, because he’s a great player.’ You do what your players can do, you can utilize that kind of personnel in our defense.”

The Houston front is such a strong group that blocking schemes have difficult choices to make.

Inside linebacker Brian Cushing will rush a lot on third down. So offenses tend to move their center toward him. That helps Watt wind up with one-on-ones with a guard, since the tackle has to deal with another very good rusher in Reed.

“I don’t know what they are going to do,” Phillips said of the attention Watt can draw.

Watt gets moved around based on what Phillips calls and the matchups the Texans are looking to exploit. But the default is the strong side, which Watt estimates puts him against right tackles and guards 70 percent of the time.

In Watt, the Texans have a largely egoless guy. He’s easygoing when he chats with a reporter, relentless when he’s on the field. He’s not too far removed from working as a pizza delivery guy, so he cherishes the job he’s got and the chances that come with it.

“He’s a perfect guy,” Phillips said. “He’s a perfect player for you, he works hard, he studies hard, he plays hard, he’s first in everything he does, all the drills and all that stuff. He’s what you want. Plus, he’s a great athlete, too.”

Early in training camp, I asked Watt about how he could get better at after a great rookie season that included a point-blank interception of Andy Dalton and a 29-yard touchdown return in a playoff win against Cincinnati. After the great three games so far, I asked how he had improved.

He said it’s all been about calculated risks he’s now willing to take.

“It’s confidence, first of all,” he said. “I have more of an array of moves. But I have the confidence in maybe taking a risk in order to make a play. They are extremely calculated. I’m not going to put the team in harm’s way or give up a big play. I do them at just the right time where, hopefully, if everything goes according to plan, I have a very small chance of failure.

“Sometimes if I’m going to knife underneath a block or I am going to swim over a blocker, those are things where you can get caught with your arm over a blocker, he can hit you right in the chest and you’re in some deep trouble there. But if you play it right and you do it at the right time and you set him up long enough, you can make it where your chance of failure is pretty small.”

Watt is appreciative of the comparisons to Justin Smith, who he respects and regards as a great player.

“Watt is on a defensive MVP type of pace,” Williamson said. “To me, Justin Smith was the clear No. 1 3-4 defensive end heading into this season, but Watt was great as a rookie and is even better in Year 2. He is pushing for that crown. The ends in Arizona have been fantastic as well in their more traditional 3-4.”

Growing up in Pewaukee, Wis., Watt admired Howie Long and Reggie White. But the young Texan isn’t real big on comparisons.

Please don’t call him the next anybody.

“I think the mark of a truly great player is the guy who wants to have the most success, a guy who wants to do things that have never been done before,” he said. “So that’s my goal. I want to come out here and hopefully work my tail of for my career and do things that have never been done before.”