Two of the NFL’s biggest stars will line up across from each other this Sunday. The New Orleans Saints' primary goal, however, will be to make sure they meet up as little as possible.
Watt is once again leading the NFL in sacks with 11.5 for a Houston Texans defense that has been on a tear during their current three-game winning streak. They went 12 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown until the second half of last week’s win over the New York Jets.
Brees said it’s important to be aware of where Watt is at all times since the Texans will move him around on occasion.
But Brees said it’s not the same type of chess match that he might have against a top defensive back or middle linebacker.
“It’s different because he’s not like in a middle linebacker position where that guy’s making a lot of calls. ... That doesn’t seem to be J.J. Watt’s role,” Brees said. “J.J. Watt’s role is [to] line up where he’s supposed to line up on the line and wreak havoc.
“And he does a good job of that.”
Watt will primarily line up at left defensive end, where he’ll match up against Saints right tackle Zach Strief. On occasion, Watt will flip to the right side or line up in the middle as a tackle.
“It’s not like you can just sit there and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna run away from him,’ because you don’t know where he’s gonna be,” Brees said.
But Watt’s deception is hardly his most dangerous quality. Brees and Strief both talked about his relentless pursuit to the ball and his ability to finish.
“He might be blocked for a short while but, eventually, he’s gonna find a way,” Brees said. “So you just want to make sure that the ball’s out.”
Strief had a hard time coming up with other players who play with the same style as Watt, who has great athleticism for his long and strong 6-foot-5, 289-pound frame.
The Saints’ Cameron Jordan is in that same mold as an athletic big man who can play inside and outside. But certainly Watt is one of a kind when it comes to his 63 sacks, 13 forced fumbles and 38 passes defensed over the past four years, among other mind-boggling statistics.
“One, I think he’s as complete a player,” Strief said. “He has everything that you want in a D-lineman. He’s explosive, he’s long, he’s strong, he can finish plays, he can make tackles. He’s got good variation in his moves, good movement skills. He’s got kind of that whole package. And I think he’s a high-motor guy, so it’s not like you’re gonna get him to take a bunch of plays off and get a couple breaks.
“But I think, personally, the thing that makes him really elite is I think he’s as good of a finisher that there is in the NFL. He plays behind a lot of people, he’s kind of unorthodox, yet he’s explosive and long enough to finish on those plays. Some guys are in those positions, and the difference between him and another guy is when he reaches his arm out, he gets it around a waist and the other guy’s trying to hope he catches a foot.
“He doesn’t miss sacks, he doesn’t miss tackles. That to me is why his numbers are so good. ... The guy can close and make plays as good as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Strief figured he will see Watt about 80 percent of the time.
As Saints left tackle Terron Armstead pointed out, the Texans’ other pass-rushers, Whitney Mercilus (6.5 sacks) and Jadeveon Clowney (1.5 sacks), are doing pretty well themselves rushing from the right side.
“With the way Whitney Mercilus and Clowney are playing, they don’t need to move him around as much,” Armstead said.
The Saints' pass protection has improved a bit over the past month or so, but Brees is still on pace to be sacked more than ever in his career, even though he missed a game due to injury. He has been sacked 23 times, on pace for 38.
The Texans are 11th in the NFL with 27 sacks. Most impressive, they’re first in the NFL on third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert only 26.4 percent of the time.
"There's no greater challenge than the one that’s right in front of us. I think the Texans are playing as well as any team, especially defensively," Brees said. "When you turn on the film from the last few weeks, these guys have been dominating."