HOUSTON -- Since 2012, when the J.J. Watt batted-passes phenomenon began, the players who lead the league in batted passes are two with similar roots. And they'll both be on the field at NRG Stadium on Sunday.
Watt leads the league since 2012 with 28 batted passes. Eagles outside linebacker Connor Barwin has 17 batted passes since then.
"I think it’s something that has to do with Bill Kollar," Barwin said, referencing the Texans' defensive line coach. "I don’t hear him talked about very much, but ... we had the same coach for obviously the first four years on my career essentially and the first four now for J.J. It’s something that he always talks about. A lot of D-line coaches don’t necessarily talk about it. I think they’re now starting to, but I give a lot of credit to Bill Kollar.”
It wasn't that Kollar was teaching them how to do it. Rather, he was telling them how important a batted pass could be.
"I remember Bill the whole time he used to say, ‘A batted pass is as good as a sack,’" Barwin said. "So as a young player I was thinking I’m going to get a sack. I’m going to rush as hard as I can and get a sack, but if I’m not going to get there, I’m going to do everything to get in front of the ball and bat that pass because my coach viewed it as the same thing.”
Watt leads the league this season with six batted passes. Barwin is tied with several players for second with three.
Watt has been working on batting passes since college. He focuses on the quarterback and the ball, rather than the person he's trying to get past.
"I’ve said it many times before -- it’s part skill, part luck because I miss probably 80 to 90 percent of the time that I jump up to block the ball," Watt said. "If you watch close enough you’ll see me look silly plenty of times getting knocked down, fall down, jump up when the ball is going the complete opposite way.
"For the most part, you just try and do whatever you can to get in that passing lane, get in the window and hope the ball hits your hands because it’s such a big play. I mean, it’s a zero yardage gain.”
It can be demoralizing for a quarterback to have his pass batted.
"You've got to not let it frustrate you," Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said.
Because of the part-luck nature of the play, it's hard for quarterbacks to do too much to prevent batted passes. Still, there are some things that can help.
"One is the release point and the height of the quarterback," Texans quarterbacks coach George Godsey said. "I think that is one thing that can help you out. Up front, not allowing penetration from a defensive lineman. A lot of that is your initial step. When you’re making a read and a decision, sometimes if you stare down maybe a receiver, then the defensive lineman see that. When you take a three-step drop, they’re probably going to hold off on the rush and throw their hands up. there are a lot of factors that are involved in that.
"... I think it all starts with really finding the free safety and really making the read off of that. When the D-lineman decides to rush, if you’re not looking at the target, you can find a window to throw it.”
It gets that much harder when the lineman trying to bat the pass is built the way Watt is. When Fitzpatrick played for other teams and had to face Watt, he remembers what a big point of emphasis Watt's penchant for tipped passes was.
"When you have a guy like J.J.,there’s not a whole lot you can do because of how big he is, how long his arms are," Fitzpatrick said. "Unless you’re throwing the ball downfield. If you’re throwing short passes, it’s hard to get it past him. You can use your eyes a little bit and all that, but a lot of times you’re not really worried about defensive linemen when you’re throwing the ball; you’re worried more about what’s going on in the secondary. It’s a tough thing."