JJ Watt’s preseason statistics for the Houston Texans will not blow you away. In fact, one tackle and one pass defended would lead the casual observer to believe Watt was underperforming for the 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
The Texans seem to be more than satisfied with Watt's performance so far though, as they should be. The former Wisconsin Badger has been everything they thought he would be and more.
While the preseason isn’t guaranteed to emulate the the regular season, Wade Phillips has to feel good about his top pick at this point. After all, Watt may be the ideal fit for Phillips’ brand of the 3-4 defense.
I won’t beat a dead horse too much, but as it’s been noted before, Phillips' defense requires ends to penetrate much more than the 5-technique defensive ends in a traditional 3-4 who are 2-gap players. These ends are used more to tie up blockers in order to free up their linebackers in pursuit of the ball.
This may seem like the 5-technique in Phillips’ defense would be easier to play, but that may not be the reality. While regular penetration into the backfield is often called for, this leaves the ends especially vulnerable to be taken out of the play by offensive linemen who attempt to subtly redirect their rushing momentum.
Therefore, a 5-technique in Phillips’ defense must have attributes that would allow him to be successful in both a 4-3 and a 3-4; he must be able to rush the passer better than a typical 3-4 lineman, but he must also be able to diagnose run plays in order to hold the point of attack and resist overpursuit.
Watt has shown this ability and then some. Teammates and coaches alike have lauded his ability to soak in advice, and he has used that knowledge—plus his natural ability—to make an impact—though not reflected in his stat line.
Take the game against the New York Jets, for example.
In his first-ever NFL action, Watt regularly beat his assignments, leading to the pressure other Texans capitalized on. When both Xavier Adibi and Earl Mitchell tallied sacks, the quarterback had initially dodged Watt.
Watt is not a complete player yet, however. He must get better at playing the run—something that has plagued the Texans defense in general this preseason. If the defensive line is too concentrated on applying pressure, the linebackers can be engulfed by extra blockers—a phenomenon leading to the rushing success that both the Jets and Saints had.
Watt’s character gives me every faith he will learn, though. To borrow on the cliché, he just gets it; on and off the field. Watt had to fight just to get a scholarship at Wisconsin, and that work ethic has obviously remain intact despite the his new eight-figure contract.
I’m sure Watt has enjoyed becoming a millionaire, but he clearly wants to succeed on the field with his teammates above all else. In an interview during the Jets game, Watt ended the questioning session by thanking Suzy Kolber and giving an emphatic "Go Texans."
His behavior as a high-character guy doesn’t necessarily translate to success on the field, but the fact that Watt has seemingly put the notion of team success above individual success leads me to believe he will work tirelessly to improve on his play recognition and anything else the Texans ask of him—even if it isn’t something that will produce individual statistics and accolades.
It's way too early to call Watt a success, but there are many indications he will be one, in my opinion.
What’s your take? Let me know what you think of the Texans' first-round draft pick thus far in the comments or on Twitter.