From scoring a season-low 13 points to an inability to stop the run in Week 5, the Kansas City Chiefs have plenty of areas to address before hosting the Houston Texans Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium.
But one spot commanding extra attention surrounds an offensive line that’s missing starting left tackle Eric Fisher and left guard Andrew Wylie as the Chiefs prepare to face Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
“You just got to play,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said Thursday. “We don’t care about who’s hurt or who’s not playing. The only thing that we know whoever’s in there has a great opportunity to go out and show out what he can do, and then on top of that he has a great opportunity to help us win.”
Sounds simple enough, and the Chiefs will continue to rely on Cam Erving in Fisher’s place. Recently signed Stefen Wisniewski could be thrust into the starting lineup at left guard.
Bieniemy’s decree, however, could be easier said than done given the fact that the 6-foot-5, 288-pound Watt is one of those rare defensive players in the NFL who is capable of taking over a game.
In his nine-year career, Watt has totaled 96 sacks, which represents the fourth-highest amount among active players, and 257 quarterback hits.
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year enters Week 6 with four sacks and 13 quarterback hits this season. He will be facing a Chiefs offensive line that allowed four sacks and eight quarterback hits in Week 5.
Needless to say, finding a way to slow down Watt, who mostly lines up over the right tackle, is a priority.
“You kind of know where he is on all plays and you have to account for him,” Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. “He’s still as good as a player as he’s ever been. I think he’s done a great job working hard to come back from a couple of injuries. He’s just as nimble and as strong as ever, so for an offensive line, you’ve got your hands full.”
Chiefs center Austin Reiter agreed, noting that the Texans have another pass rusher on the other side they must also account for.
“He’s definitely a great player, and we’re going to be aware of where he’s at,” Reiter said of Watt. “But even on the other side, they have Whitney Mercilus, who is also a really good player. I think you face those challenges every week in the National Football League.”
Houston’s defense has totaled 15 sacks this season, tied for ninth-most in the league. Of that total, Mercilus, who leads the Texans with five sacks, and Watt have combined for nine.
But when sizing up Houston’s pass rush, everything starts with Watt.
“He’s kind of the gold standard of the last seven or eight years now,” Schwarz said. “You look at his numbers, I mean, it’s really him, (Denver’s) Von (Miller) and (Chicago’s) Khalil (Mack) in terms of production and what they’ve done in these last six or eight years. He doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all.”
Still, even Watt isn’t invincible. The Chiefs can look back to Week 1 of the regular season, when the Texans played the New Orleans Saints, to remember that.
While the Saints utilized some double-teams and chip blocks, the team mostly relied on right tackle Ryan Ramczyk to handle Watt. Ramczyk proved up to the task and did his part to keep Watt out of the box score, marking the first time in Watt’s career that he failed to record at least a tackle or quarterback hit.
Schwartz said he has looked at film of the Texans-Saints game but won’t try to duplicate everything that worked for the Saints’ offensive lineman because of the risk of forgetting his own fundamentals and technique.
“You try to look at as many games as possible and see what works and what doesn’t,” Schwartz said. “But you can get a little too far if you try to mimic a guy too much ...
“I think that’s something where as an offensive lineman maybe he was doing stuff that worked for him, but that’s not going to work for me here. We do things different.”
The Chiefs’ right tackle also cautioned against looking too deeply at stats on a sheet because elite pass rushers can affect a game in numerous ways — by causing the quarterback to step up in the pocket, for instance, or otherwise adjusting his throwing motion to avoid the rush.
“I think it’s the type of thing for pass rushers, I mean, that gets brought up,” Schwartz said. “You know, Von (Miller) didn’t have a sack for a couple of games, things like that. The impact those guys have on a game goes far beyond not having a quarterback sack or a quarterback hit.”
Ultimately, Watt is but one of the key matchups in Sunday’s game that the Chiefs must be fully aware of. But how well the Chiefs limit Watt’s game-wrecking abilities should go a long way toward determining the contest’s outcome.
“Good players have a huge impact on every game,” Schwartz said. “They don’t really get shut down.”