KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt couldn’t hide if he wanted to.
The three-time All-Pro is seen on national television commercials and magazine covers, fitting endorsements for one of the NFL’s premier defensive players who is widely regarded as a genuinely good person.
His off-field profile notwithstanding, the 6-5, 289-pound Watt makes his biggest splash on the field, where he has totaled 57 sacks since entering the league in 2011.
And Watt comes off a season with 20 ½ sacks, which ranked second behind Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston’s 22 sacks.
“He jumps out on film, certainly,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said of Watt. “I mean, as a quarterback, you see their front and you’re studying more of the whole 11 guys than any one, especially the guys rushing you, but he jumps out there. He makes a lot of plays. He’s earned his respect. On every film you watch, he jumps out and makes a play.”
Coach Andy Reid concedes the challenge of facing Watt when the Chiefs travel to Houston to face the Texans at NRG Stadium on Sunday.
“They move him all over, there’s not one place he’s going to be over and over,” Reid said. “They’re going to move him up and down the line and inside and outside. He’s a good athlete and he’s a smart player. He keeps leverage and he’s relentless, he keeps bringing it.”
Of course, Sunday isn’t the first time a Chiefs team led by Reid will face Watt.
The two teams met in 2013 at Arrowhead Stadium, where Watt produced six solo tackles, a sack, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble during the Chiefs’ 17-16 win.
Kansas City had continuity on the offensive line in 2013 with Branden Albert at left tackle, Jeff Allen at left guard, Rodney Hudson at center, Jon Asamoah at right guard and Eric Fisher at right tackle.
The Chiefs don’t have that luxury entering Sunday with an offensive line featuring new starters at every position from the 2014 season: Donald Stephenson is at left tackle, Ben Grubbs at left guard, rookie Mitch Morse at center, second-year pro Laurent Duvernay-Tardif at right guard and Eric Fisher at right tackle.
Of that group, Grubbs, a two-time Pro Bowl selection acquired via trade with New Orleans in March, and Fisher, who moves from left tackle back to the right side, offer the most experience.
Watt has carte blanche to line up wherever he feels he can exploit a weakness, all while playing within the defensive scheme.
“He does get free reign to hit any gap basically he wants to no matter what the blitz is, what kind of defense they’re in,” Stephenson said. “You kind of just got to play with your hands up, feet underneath and great technique.’
While Watt is more than capable of taking over a game, he isn’t the only player the Texans will throw at the Chiefs front five.
“Everybody knows J.J. Watt, (defensive tackle) Vince (Wilfork), (outside linebacker Jadeveon) Clowney is expected to play some – they have pretty good (linebackers),” Grubbs said. “It’s going to be a huge challenge.
“I think the most important thing for us is going to be film work, understanding what they do as a defense as a whole, they have a lot of different thing to their defense, a lot of different stunts. Then, on top of that, you have to account for each individual player every play. It’s going to be a huge challenge, but we’re definitely up for it.”
Duvernay-Tardif agreed with Grubbs, adding while Watt poses a challenge, the Chiefs won’t alter how they attack the Houston defense.
“We’re just going to run our play,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “I trust the coach is going to call the best play possible to run against their defense. Wherever he’s going to be, we’re going to block him. That’s how we’re trained to play.”
Watt ultimately commands respect because of how he can affect a play, and how the Chiefs handle him will help in determining the outcome on Sunday.
And in a game of inches, the Chiefs can’t allow Watt to take a mile.
“I wouldn’t say we fear him, we don’t fear anybody,” Grubbs said. “Our mindset is it doesn’t matter who lines up in front of us, we’re going to play hard and we’re going to play tough, and we’re going to do what we have to do to make our blocks.”
TALE OF THE TAPE (2014 COMPARISON)
• The Chiefs ranked 10th in rushing (119.9 yards per game) and 29th in passing (198.9 yards per game).
• The Texans ranked eighth in rushing (135.1 yards per game) and 24th in passing (209.5 yards per game).
• The Chiefs ranked 28th against the run (127.3 yards allowed per game) and second against the pass (203.3 yards allowed per game).
• The Texans ranked 10th against the run (105.1 yards allowed per game) and 21st against the pass (243.1 yards allowed per game).
THE LAST TIME
The Chiefs defeated the Texans 17-16 in Week 7 of the 2013 season and Sunday’s contest marks the seventh time the two teams will square off.
The series is currently tied at 3-3, including a 2-2 mark for games played in Houston.
The Chiefs and Texans have met one other time in a season opener, resulting in the Texans defeating the Chiefs, 20-3, in Houston in 2007.
• Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines played collegiately at Rice.
• Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel served in the same capacity with the Chiefs (2010-11) and was the Chiefs head coach in 2012.
• Texans linebacker coach Mike Vrabel played the final two seasons of his career with the Chiefs (2009-10).
• Texans defensive assistant Anthony Pleasant served as the Chiefs defensive line coach for three seasons (2010-12).
• Texans starting strong safety Quintin Demps played for the Chiefs in 2013, appearing in 16 games and led the team with four interceptions. He also played for Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles (2008-09).
• Sunday’s game features three former No. 1 overall picks of the NFL Draft: Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (2005), Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher (2013) and Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (2014).
The Chiefs are building something special under general manager John Dorsey and Andy Reid, according to players.
And much of the attitude surrounds the atmosphere as the Chiefs prepare to open the 2015 regular season.
“I think this group really embodies that family mentality,” said defensive end Mike DeVito, a nine-year pro. “When I get out there on the field, whether it be (Derrick Johnson) or Justin (Houston) or Dontari (Poe), you really want to play for those guys, not just because they’re coworkers, but they’re really family. You want to go out there and work hard and do your best, not just to put your best product out there, but because the other guy’s counting on you.”
The Chiefs have come a long way from the previous regime, and Houston adds how the players mingle and genuinely get along now is viewed as uncommon in today’s NFL.
“I think it’s very rare,” Houston said. “My first couple years, we didn’t have that. You couldn’t go sit at the lunch table with anybody and have a good conversation, and I think it’s rare. I think this is probably the first year I’m able to do that.”
The Chiefs have the same coaching staff for a third straight season, marking the first time that has happened in 12 years.
Stability certainly contributes to the family mentality.
“I think it helps that we’re going into our third year now, guys have been around each other for a while now,” DeVito said. “It is difficult to get that, but I think this organization, this team, Coach Reid, we really stress that in training camp and OTAs and everything building up to this point, that we recognize how important that is going into the season.”
Rookie center Mitch Morse agreed, adding he was elated when the Chiefs selected him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
“This is one of the best organizations there is,” Morse said. “There’s no doubt about that. I knew I was fortunate when I got drafted here. It was only reinforced when I got here. Top to bottom, this is a great organization and I’m just fortunate to be a part of it.”
Safety Eric Berry, who beat cancer on his return to football, on potentially waking up sore Monday morning from Sunday’s game:
“Football sore is way better than chemo sore.”
Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, a native of Waco, Texas, on playing in Houston:
“I’ll probably have a hundred people there. It’s one of those things, for a Texas guy to have a home game, it won’t be any distractions for me.”
Texans coach Bill O’Brien laughing while offering thoughts on wrapping up the team’s appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks”:
“I’m glad it’s over.”
Outside linebacker Justin Houston, who led the NFL with 22 sacks in 2014, on his goals in 2015:
“To beat last year, if I can.”