EARTH CITY, Mo. – The St. Louis Rams play San Francisco’s Justin Smith twice every season, so they have at least some idea of what a nonstop motor combined with strongman power and elite skills can do to wreck an offensive game plan.
This week, the Rams will get a formal introduction to the next step up the evolutionary ladder for defensive ends when they meet a player with all of the same traits as Smith -- only taken to another level.
Since he entered the league in 2011, J.J. Watt has yet to line up opposite the Rams, but he’ll get his first chance Sunday when they pay a visit to Houston to face the Texans.
In a season full of challenges, the Rams likely won’t find a more difficult, hard-charging one than Watt.
“If he’s not the best defensive lineman in the league, he’s certainly in the top two or three,” Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “Just watching him on film, he’s everything you hear about.”
Not many individual players are capable of taking over a game, particularly ones who generally don’t have the ball in their hands. But Watt can.
For the Rams to have a chance to steal their first road victory of the season, they’ll have to find an answer for Watt and the many things he can do to dominate a game.
In 2012, Watt was named the NFL defensive player of the year after amassing 20.5 sacks, 81 tackles, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 16 batted passes. All of that production came from a man playing a position that normally asks whoever is playing it to be stout against the run, take on multiple blockers and allow others to make the splashy plays.
Watt isn’t holding down the same pace so far this season, but he’s been no less effective as Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is moving him all over the field. He lines up on the edge, inside, on the right, on the left -- you never really know where he’s coming from.
Throughout this week the Rams have had practice-squad lineman Mason Brodine wearing the red No. 99 jersey in an effort to mimic Watt’s many machinations.
“We’ve got a red jersey on every snap at practice, because you’ve got to know where he lines up,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “[Watt is] one of the better defensive players you’ll face. He’s very disruptive, quick, relentless. If he can’t get there, he bats the ball down, but most of the time he gets there with consistent pressure. So we’ve got our hands full with him.”
From a pass-rushing perspective, the Texans have deployed Watt on the interior a bit more this season than in his first two years in the league. There, he’s able to take advantage of his speed and athleticism a bit more, but he also doesn’t hesitate to use his power to run over blockers. He also has the ability to shed blockers and chase down ball carriers.
Rams left tackle Jake Long will probably get a chance to square off with Watt at least occasionally Sunday, and he said that from past experience the best way to battle Watt is to be as fundamentally sound as possible.
“You have just got to trust your technique,” Long said. “You’ve got to go out and match his intensity, play through the echo of the whistle because that’s what he’ll do. But mainly just play with technique, be confident in what you do and go out and let it all go.”
Complicating matters further is Watt’s 82½-inch wingspan and his uncanny ability to know when to continue his pass rush and when to raise his arms to bat down passes. This skill, one Watt said he’s worked on and developed since his college days at Wisconsin, has earned him the nickname J.J. “Swat.”
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has had his share of issues with batted passes in his career and leads the league with eight this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“You can’t worry about that too much,” Bradford said. “Obviously, he has made a lot of plays that way, but I think if you start looking for him and expecting him to do that, then you take your eyes off of where they need to be down the field.”
Schottenheimer says the concern about Watt’s ability to knock down passes should fall on the offensive line, not the quarterback.
“There’s not much you can do,” Schottenheimer said. “The emphasis goes more to the linemen. If you have got him stopped and he’s kind of standing there trying to feel his way through, you have just got to try to get your hands on him to keep his hands down.”
Watt doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses in his game, but he does occasionally freelance or overpursue and finds himself out of position. There isn’t an obvious solution for keeping Watt in check, and focusing too much on him can allow one of his talented teammates, such as Antonio Smith or Brian Cushing, to have a big day.
For the Rams, the goal can’t be to stop Watt. It has to be finding a way to keep him from completely taking over.