This past Saturday, I heard someone at the Tennessee Titans scrimmage say that we were “gonna stop that guy this season” in a situation where Titans 1st round draft pick and Heisman winner Marcus Mariota was nearly sacked. My guffaw and subsequent groans around stopping “that guy” caught the attention of a fellow fan who agreed with me. See, “that guy” is JJ Watt, a one-man offense destroying, pick your throw and slam it into your face, switch sides and scores touchdowns just ’cause, ruin your day, call your mama to take your beaten butt home, defensive end for the Houston Texans. Joining him this year is second year Jadeveon Clowney (out last year due to a torn meniscus) and first round draft pick rookie Kevin Johnson out of Wake Forest. Together, they pose the most terrifying defensive trio football has seen in many years. So stopping “that guy” this year is now “those guys,” who just do NOT stop.
I know that we all love JJ Watt – if you’ve seen him, you cannot NOT love him – but the Texans do have about 90 other players currently on their roster. Yes, half of them will be gone by the fourth preseason game, but isn’t “Hard Knocks” all about one player. How about we discuss them for a while?
Let’s start off easy with the stellar Texans defense.
Alongside Watt, Clowney, and Johnson are offseason acquisitions nose tackle Vince Wilfork (Patriots), who is nothing short of a wild Tasmanian devil-ish beast; solid strong safety Stevie Brown (Giants), still quick and nimble for his veteran status; and free safety Rahim Moore (Broncos), one of the top unsigned players coming out of the 2014 season. Add those three to returning Texans inside linebacker Jared Crick, always ready to explode in terrifying ways for the offense; dependable and strong as a steam engine inside linebacker Brian Cushing; merciless outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (you didn’t really expect to not have a pun on that, did you now?); the speed demon you constantly track, cornerback Jonathan Joseph; stalwart defender cornerback Kareem Jackson; and 2nd round pick Benardrick McKinney of Mississippi State. If we add those five to Watt’s trio and the three offseason snags, well, someone just rained defeat on every offense the Texans play this year. And to add more destructions to your hopes, those are only the projected starters – I’m not mentioning all the other defensive players who could step in for certain situations, plays, backups, or whatever defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel comes up with! To be short ‘n’ sweet, the Houston D is powered up and ready to go whenever, wherever, using whatever means they need. If Wilfork can force a Washington offensive lineman to tackle his own runningback in a shared practice, we are in for one hell of a show when the Watt-Wilfork defensive team is on the field. (That video will never get old.)
I will admit that Clowney has the most question marks next to his name. He was plagued with injuries his junior year of college (he opted out of his senior year and was taken as the #1 pick in the entire 2013 draft) and last season was out part of the preseason with concussion-like symptoms and soon tore his meniscus during the first quarter of the first game of his first professional season. Add exclamation points to all those question marks, too, if you’re keeping score at home. As much as I love/hate Steve Spurrier and admire/despise his coaching talents (hey, I live in UT country and we remember Spurrier’s Florida years all too well), my fears surrounding Clowney aren’t going away until midseason at the earliest. Normally a team’s first round pick, in this case, Kevin Johnson, would be the biggest question going into the season, but Clowney has a lot to prove physically. Houston and South Carolina fans are all hoping his sophomore seasons wasn’t a fluke but a habit. It doesn’t help anything that his dad is currently in jail facing an attempted murder charge.
Speaking of those tiny humans in the above caption……
Let’s talk offense.
Ay, there’s the rub. Where to begin? Arian Foster, perhaps a bit more than an hour before the news about Clowney’s dad being arrested, injured himself. Badly. Torn groin. The team is expecting their star runningback to return before too long, though, as Foster has already undergone surgery. Still, several weeks of regular season games without him, and even a limited return until perhaps late in the season, could spell disaster for the Texans’ offense. Last season, Foster ran for 1,246 yards and eight touchdowns; on the receiving end, he had 38 receptions, 327 total yards, and five touchdowns. That’s 13 touchdowns, one for each game he played last season. Give he only played in 13 out of 16 games and had such excellent running stats, hopes were high that he would have his best season yet this year. One of the most astonishing notes of last season is that the Texans had five different quarterbacks across 16 games. Yes, five. You didn’t read that wrong. Just think what Foster could do with one or two solid, steady, good QBs? Looks like we’ll have to imagine and/or pray that Foster is healthy and someone consistently good is under the center come 2016.
But then there’s the quarterback situation. In 16 games, Houston went through five quarterbacks. Heck, the Tennessee Titans only needed four by game 16, and Lord knows how insane their quarterback carousel was last year (Locker was hurt, then Whitehurst stepped in and failed, then Zach Mettenberg stepped in and was “selfied” upside the face by JJ Watt in his first start before getting hurt, then Whitehurst was back, and I don’t even remember who the fourth backup was that the Titans had to have for their last couple of games. And I live in Nashville and go to all the Titans game. God help the Houston fans.).
This offseason, the Texans have brought in Brian Hoyer out of Cleveland but, based on his contract, don’t have much faith in him. His contract is for two years, only the first of which has guaranteed money. Hoyer has a lot of experience and received the starting job as the Browns QB over purported football superstar Johnny “Football” Manziel. Along with Hoyer are Ryan Mallett, a veteran quarterback beginning his second year with the Texans, and Tom Savage, a 4th round pick in the 2014 draft. Savage will be the 3rd string QB, but, the question remains, who will take that initial snap under center? Battle Red Blog (BRB), a Texans community blog, has released a poll showing who the fans want as starting QB. The clear winner is Ryan Mallett. Whether second-year head coach Bill O’Brien agrees is yet to be seen. Considering how rough some freshman coaching seasons can be, O’Brien has kept his head above water so far. In my opinion, the greatest part of “Hard Knocks” this year will be who gets that quarterback position. It’s the quarterback who gets everything rolling and, even with Arian Foster and JJ Watt and any runningback, wide receiver, tight end, etc. in the league, Houston won’t win games if someone doesn’t get that ball in motion. That someone needs to be one person and one person only. Here’s to preseason being a successful switch between Hoyer and Mallett until one is the clear victor. Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Mallett and Hoyer have battled each other for a quarterback position. The Patriots released Hoyer as a backup for Tom Brady a few seasons ago in favor or Mallett. Is history repeating itself, or is Mallett going to have to step aside for Hoyer this time?
And lastly, yes, of course, JJ Watt.
The Texans managed to have a winning season last year, though how they did so is still a dang good question. Did JJ Watt carry his defense – and, subsequently, team – to that, contributing with five touchdowns (three defensive, two offensive)? YES, one hundred million times over. Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic with that but, really, no. JJ Watt was and is THE game changer in Houston. He plays a style that hasn’t been seen in the NFL since Chuck Bednarik, who retired in 1962. And Bednarik was a linebacker and center – Watt is a defensive end and scored as an eligible receiver. That, ladies and gents, is a true utility player. To find another similar player, you have to go back to the early days of football, back with the AFL and the necessity of a utility player because there weren’t enough men to play offense or defense strictly. What Watt does is nothing short of finesse. He is likely the finest defense end football has ever seen; if not the best of all time, he’s in the top three. He may just be the finest player in the NFL, something rarely said about defensive players, especially defensive ends. Last season, Watt had 78 combined tackles, 59 total tackles, 20.5 sacks, 15 stuffs for a total loss of 36 yards, four forced fumbles, five fumbles recovered, and one interception. Let’s not forget those three defensive touchdowns, either. Watt isn’t good – he’s a monster not to be reckoned with, overlooked, miscalculated, or misjudged. He has your number before you even know what jersey you’ll wear. He is just that good.
So, could Watt do lead his team to a winning season again? Sure he could. Should he have to? No. He should never have to – that’s why there are 52 other Texans. A team can have the best defense in the NFL, but if the offense can’t produce points, well, you can’t win games. You can keep games tight or tied, but eventually a kick will happen or a wild throw from a wide receiver that a quarterback catches in the endzone or an onside kick that the special teams had no idea was coming or or or or. Defense wins games, but the offense has to score enough points so that the defense can do their jobs. That’s why this season of “Hard Knocks” can’t be only about JJ Watt. There are too many questions on the offense – the quarterback carousel, the receivers, the rookies, Clowney, Foster’s injury and return, replacing Foster in the meantime – that deserve more screen time than JJ and his monstrous defense. JJ Watt may be the best defense player in the NFL, or even the best overall player, but one man cannot carry a team to a winning season and a playoff berth.
It’s time for the offense to wake up down in Houston. Preseason starts in the next few days and regular seasons just a few weeks later. Wakey, wakey, boys; things are about to get real. Let’s hope “Hard Knocks” recognizes this and spends their time looking at the bigger picture: the ongoing quarterback struggle, replacing Foster, stepping up their scoring drives, and getting into the playoffs on their own offensive merits.
The (suspected) rundown going into “Hard Knocks”
We’re likely to hear a lot about JJ Watt and the defense simply because of Watt’s popularity. He’s a pretty cool guy and doing a show like “Hard Knocks” seems like something that would be a bit fun for him. When it comes down to it, though, he will be battle ready, cameras or not.
The Quarterback Carousel: Hoyer or Mallett?
Arian Foster’s injury and plans to replace him temporarily.
Preparing for division rivals, especially Andrew Luck, TY Hilton, and the Colts. Sloppy play will not be allowed.
The current Texans’ roster will be whittled down from about 90 players to 53, five of which must be redshirted. The whittling process will be interesting and depend on preseason game and practice improvements and performances.
For an extra bit of fun to be had, why not see which Texan you’re most like? The team currently as a great quiz out. I’d love to see your results. I was cornerback Jonathan Joseph (go me!) and Jacob Klein, our illustrious editor and leader, was injured runningback Arian Foster. So, which Texan are you? Be sure to post your answer in the comments!
So, anyone else in the mood for some football?!? Continue the discussion in the comments second below and watch Hard Knocks 2015 onlinetonight at 9PM.
VL Vanderveer is a graduate of East Tennessee State University’s Department of Literature and Language. Aside from her blogging for HBOWatch.com, she can be found in the Marketing department of InnLink Central Reservations Services.