HOUSTON -- While eight-year veteran linebacker Barrett Ruud was out of the league, he caught the Texans’ Week 5 win against the Jets on "Monday Night Football."
On the telecast he heard his old coach from Tampa Bay, ESPN commentator Jon Gruden, assess J.J. Watt.
“Gruden is pretty sharp. I played for the guy. He’ll say some weird things. But when it comes to football he doesn’t exaggerate too much."
The Texans signed Ruud just a few days after that game, and Sunday he joined Watt in celebrating a 29-17 win over the Colts that gave Houston its second consecutive AFC South title.
“I’ve watched [Watt] since I’ve been here,” Ruud said. “His bad games are better than anybody else’s good games. It’s pretty impressive. ...It’s almost comical how much he took over this game.”
Leading into Sunday's game, Watt was like the rest of America: A sad citizen trying to come to grips with the elementary school massacre that took place Friday in Newtown, Conn.
He scribbled Newtown on his cleats to do a little bit to honor victims, families and first-responders, then had perhaps his best game of a stellar season.
Watt had 10 tackles, six of them for a loss, including three sacks. He also forced a Mewelde Moore fumble at the Texans’ 1-yard line.
He had fun, he said. While he’s thrilled to have the division wrapped up, bigger things await, he hopes. He declined to classify Sunday’s work as his best of the year.
“There were a couple plays I left on the field,” he said. “I know I missed two sacks.”
If that wasn’t his best, what was?
“Probably the first Jacksonville game,” he said. “I only played 37 plays but I went out there and had a couple good ones.”
The Colts don’t have a very good offensive line. It’s not a position they had many resources to address as they reshaped their roster. As they bid unsuccessfully for their 10th win in a surprising season, they were down two starters, center Samson Satele and right tackle Winston Justice.
On a third-and-20 from the Indianapolis 34 in the third quarter, Watt moved McGlynn aside and blew past him so quickly it appear he surprised himself -- overrunning quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw incomplete.
“He’s a good player, obviously,” McGlynn said. “Got to look at the film. We play them again in a couple weeks and we’ve got to neutralize him. They do some good things schematically that lets their D-line go ahead and pass rush."
“He’s one of the premier D-tackles in the league and we just didn’t do a good enough job executing on our blocks,” Reitz said. “Obviously we let him get loose a couple times. ...He’s got a lot of different moves, power and speed and quickness. He’s a big guy in there. They have as good of a front as there is in the league.”
Praise of Watt has been effusive this season, and leading into last week’s loss to the Patriots, Bill Belichick added Antonio Smith to the conversation. But minus inside linebacker Brian Cushing for the season and outside linebacker Brooks Reed for a stretch, it’s been some time since the front seven made such an impression and earned such a rave.
Out of the series where Watt had a tackle for a loss, the Colts scored one field goal and the Texans got a blocked punt from Bryan Braman, who returned it 8 yards for a score. The home team was actually plus-4.
On the 10 plays where Watt was credited with a tackle or sack by game statisticians, the Colts had just two positive plays: A 1-yard run by Vick Ballard and a 3-yard scramble by Luck.
For years, AFC South teams looked at how the Colts operated with Peyton Manning and drafted with an emphasis on running backs who could help them play keep-away and defensive backs who increased their chances of slowing one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
Luck may wind up dictating some of the same things.
But the three teams of the AFC South looking to end a two-year reign by the Texans would be wise to raise the value they put on interior offensive linemen going forward.
"You need elite offensive line play to block elite defensive linemen like Watt with any consistency," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. "If you don't play near-perfect from a technique standpoint, he will eat you alive. Six-foot-six, 290 with motor and instincts. A true game wrecker."
“I’ve been preparing my whole life for this stuff and it’s just starting to come to fruition,” Watt said. “One thing I’m excited about is that it’s not over. I have a lot of football left and there is so much better I can get. I can get those two sacks. I can go out there and play better and the fun is just beginning.”
Smith plays opposite Watt on the Texans’ three-man line. I wrote early in the year about Watt’s goals for redefining the position of 3-4 end.
But when the Texans go into nickel, Watt is really playing tackle.
Reitz called Watt a tackle. So does Smith.
“We’ve got him labeled as a defensive end, so everybody is judging him on the measuring stick as an end, but he’s beating two guys every play to get to 20 sacks,” Smith said. “He’s not out on the edge free on one guy every time. ...He might end up ending the season with the most tackles out of a defensive lineman and the most sacks. Where have you heard of that before? I’ve never heard of it.”
Before the season Watt shared some goals with Smith, who told him, “I hope you get them.”
“I turned around and I was like, ‘He’s never going to get that,’” Smith said. “A tackle has never gotten those kind of numbers. But he put the numbers down. He believed in them. And I think he’s going to make them.”