Given the number of questions Chiefs players and coaches have patiently fielded about J.J. Watt the last two days, two things are clear.
For one, Watt, the Houston Texans star pass rusher, is perceived as some sort of combination between Paul Bunyan and Reggie White. And secondly, that description — while over-the-top — may not be that far off.
“Everything you want,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said, “he has it.”
Size and strength? Check. At 6 feet 5 and 288 pounds, Watt, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, covers a ton of ground and overpowers weaker offensive linemen.
“He’s freakishly big,” Chiefs center Mitch Morse said.
A quick first move? Yep. Watt explodes off the ball like nobody’s business.
“He’s pretty aggressive off the ball, and he’s a high-effort guy, so we’re going to have to bring the wood to him if we want to compete against this guy,” Chiefs right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif said.
Quick and powerful hands? You bet. Watt uses his long arms — which explain his devastating swim move — and big hands to keep offensive linemen from locking on to his chest.
“I think his quickness to transition from one move to another is unparalleled throughout the league,” Morse said. “It’s kind of fun to watch how he does stuff out on the field … he’ll try to set you up over and over again, then he’ll hit you with that swim.”
How else do you explain Watt’s historic 2014 season, when he finished with 78 tackles, 20 1/2 sacks, 10 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and an interception, while also chipping in with three touchdown receptions on offense?
That’s the kind of year it took to beat the Chiefs’ Justin Houston — who saw his hard work pay off with a masterpiece of a 2014 season in which he finished with a league-high 22 sacks and emerged as one of the team’s vocal leaders — for the NFL’s defensive player of the year award.
“Yeah, he jumps out on film, certainly,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said of Watt. “He makes a lot of plays. He’s earned his respect.”
And it’s not just Watt’s physical gifts that cause problems. Prior to most plays, the Texans’ coaches allow Watt — who puts in hours of film study — to line up wherever he wants and to do what he wants, within the scheme, to make a play.
That kind of freedom, in a league full of hands-on coaches, is rare. It is reserved for the true greats, such as Lawrence Taylor, who received the same treatment from the New York Giants in the 1980s.
“There’s not one place he’s going to be over and over,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said of Watt. “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.”
The way Watt, 26, is deployed allows him to consistently find and exploit the weakest element of an opponent’s offensive line. He can do that because he’s big enough to hold up against the run inside and quick enough to rush off the edge, a versatility that reminds Reid of one of the best players he’s ever coached.
“I was lucky to be around Reggie White, who will probably go down as one of the all-time greats,” Reid said. “You could put him anywhere, he’s one of those big guys that played about that far off of the ground and could go full speed.
“J.J. (Watt)’s got that same type of thing, he’s not quite as big as Reggie was, but he’s big enough and he’s a good football player.”
Reid, however, made it clear that with a young line — and a projected group of starters who didn’t play together during a preseason game — the Chiefs cannot let one player psych them out by adjusting every play based on where Watt lines up.
“That’s not what you’re going to do,” Reid said. “Everybody’s going to get a piece of him, they do a nice job of moving him around and he does a phenomenal job there. All of our guys just have to play.”
And those on the line say they can’t afford to fear him, either.
“I wouldn’t say we fear him — we don’t fear anybody,” Chiefs guard Ben Grubbs said. “Our mindset is (that) 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.”
But doing that, obviously, will be easier said than done. The Texans feature a defensive front that used a healthy amount of stunts and twists last season and the Chiefs struggled to block against those schemes a year ago.
“You definitely have to prepare — they have a great front seven,” right tackle Eric Fisher said.
The hope is that the Chiefs have worked on that enough this preseason to improve, even with new starters at every position of the line heading into the opener.
“We work on it pretty much a day-to-day basis,” said Duvernay-Tardif, who will make his first career start on Sunday. “Every practice we have a period where we work the technique.”
And if the Chiefs need any motivation to go the extra mile to prepare for Watt, they can look at their 2013 game against Houston, when Watt recorded six tackles and a sack, forced a fumble, and finished with a Pro Football Focus grade of 8.4 — his third-best of the year.
“He could mess things up for you, he can mess things up,” Pederson said. “So hey, we get the ball out of our (quarterback’s) hands, we do whatever we can to chip him, we do whatever we can. But that goes without saying.
“We’re going to do the same thing against the Broncos, we’re going to use the same thing against Green Bay. So we’re gonna use our scheme and go play, basically.”
With equal parts respect, and aplomb.
“I look at it like it’s a great opportunity — it’s a great challenge to be able to play a great player,” Reid said. “I think from a player standpoint, you look forward to testing yourself against what people consider the best. I think that’s the approach you need to take and I think that’s how our guys will go about their job there.”