With a compelling back story that includes playing tight end in the MAC and walking on at Wisconsin and borrowing money from his parents and delivering pizza to help pay tuition, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was blazing trails long before coming to the NFL.
Now, he wants to change the way 3-4 defensive ends are perceived.
“I’m trying to break the mold,” Watt recently said, via Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com. “A lot of people keep telling me that, that we’re not allowed to make plays or we’re not supposed to make plays. One of the things is that Coach Phillips puts me in great position to have success, he gives me great opportunities. And I think another thing is just having the belief, and not buying into this thing where you can’t make plays.”
Ordinarily, 3-4 defensive ends are responsible for tying up offensive linemen, so that the linebackers can get to the man with the football. Former Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith was among the best to ever fulfill that role, even though it meant toiling in relative anonymity.
There’s nothing anonymous about Watt.
“I mean, I don’t know why people say that you can’t make plays,” Watt said. “If you bust your tail and you’re rushing the passer, you’re going to get a sack. If you’re chasing down a runner from the back side and you beat your blocker, you’re going to get a [tackle for loss]. I don’t see why you have to be a block-eater.”
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips says that great talent can overcome the pigeonhole tendencies of defensive line play in his alignment of choice.
“That’s why we don’t play a conventional 3-4,” Phillips said. “In the Phillips’ 3-4, my dad’s 3-4, he said, ‘Elvin Bethea isn’t going to play two-gap, he can stunt, he can move, let’s get him on the move where he can make plays, because he’s a great player.’ You do what your players can do, you can utilize that kind of personnel in our defense.”
The Texans have that kind of personnel, and they’re utilizing it.
And Watt isn’t just breaking the mold, he’s smashing it –presumably with that Iron Mike Sharpe-looking contraption that Watt is wearing to protect an elbow that was dislocated during camp.