J.J. Watt is a handful, and not just because his 7.5 sacks trail only Clay Matthews' league-leading total of 8.0.
He's big (6-foot-5, 295 pounds), fast (4.8 in the 40 at the Scouting Combine), explosive (37-inch vertical), strong (34 reps on the 225-pound bench press) and long (34-inch arms). Oh, and he is indeed a "handful" — as in 11 1/8-inch hands.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Watt not only leads the league's defensive linemen with eight batted passes, but he leads the league by a mile. No. 2 is Arizona's Calais Campbell with four. Nobody else has more than three. The combined total for the Packers is one, by B.J. Raji.
"A lot of practice and it's something I've worked on ever since college and Charlie Partridge was my defensive line coach at Wisconsin worked on it a lot with me," Watt said during a conference call. "And now down here, Bill Kollar, we work on it every day. Just a lot of practice. And with practice, you start to learn little intricacies about how to block balls and when a quarterback's going to throw and where he's looking and stuff like that. But it's just a lot of practice."
If Aaron Rodgers vs. Watt is a key matchup as the Green Bay Packers visit the Houston Texans on Sunday night, then the matchup within the matchup is Rodgers' ability to throw the ball over or around Watt.
Rodgers isn't the tallest quarterback in the league at 6-foot-3 but he's consistently been among the best passers in terms of batted passes. This season, only Philip Rivers (zero) has had fewer passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage as Rodgers (one). In 2011, Rodgers tied for third with five passes batted down. He also tied for third in 2010 with six passes batted down.
"He sees things well, he can find holes in the defense and is aware of guys who are able to do that," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "Watt, he's been very good at that. It's something you have to be aware of. It's not just the quarterback who's involved in that. The linemen have to maintain their blocks on him and when they feel him stopped and getting ready to jump, they have to be more aggressive with it."
Clements said the Texans' pass-batting acumen has been a bigger focus at practice this week. Three of Watt's batted passes have resulted in interceptions.
"He jumps up, there are multiple things you can do, but his timing is very good," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "It'll be at a point where you're locked up with him and he's got long arms and he'll reach up and he may not even (have to) jump and tip a pass. We have to be alert to it. And they all do it — it's not just him — but he's very good at it. If they're not getting much pressure, they're getting their hands up and knocking down balls. It's something they do very well."
Watt vs. Matthews
Until Watt had a sack taken away earlier in the week, he had 8.5 sacks in five games. That was just a half-sack behind the fastest starts in NFL history: Mark Gastineau in 1984 and former Packer Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in 2001.
"He's obviously a very dynamic player, a good pass rusher, so we're going to have to be aware of where he is, were he's lined up and our protection and everything," Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who's been sacked just three times, said of Matthews. "Obviously, he's used to having some help put on him by other teams, whether it be tight ends or backs. You just have to be aware of where he is and adjust accordingly."
Matthews probably will face his toughest challenge of the season. Duane Brown was the 26th pick of the 2008 draft. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he has been the best tackle in the league with no sacks and a total of five pressures allowed.
"Oh, Clay Matthews. He's the real deal, man," Brown told reporters in Houston. "Heck of a player, very versatile, not really one part of his game that you can pinpoint and focus on, so it's a big challenge. Looking forward to it. Combination of speed, strength, quickness and just a lot of different moves. He doesn't really have just one go-to move that you can focus on. Very relentless, he doesn't stop after you initially stop him. He has a high motor so it's going to be an all-night affair, looking forward to it."
To get to Schaub, the Packers know they must stop the run first because Arian Foster keeps the Texans in so many third-and-short situations.
"The game plan is the same each and every week," Matthews said. "Got to be able to stop the run, get them in some third-and-long situations, try to have the quarterback beat us. We believe in our athletes. Ultimately, it comes down to guys creating pressure on the quarterback but that's ultimately if we can stop the run. Whatever side of the line is, we expect to win."
Johnson quietly one of best ever
Last week, the Packers were lit up by the Colts' one-man receiving corps of Reggie Wayne. Houston has outstanding tight ends but Andre Johnson is the clear No. 1 wide receiver and one of the best in NFL history.
Johnson averages 78.3 yards per game for his career, tops in NFL history among receivers who played in 100 games. Sterling Sharpe ranks 10th on that list with 72.6 per game. Since 1970, Johnson has 14 games of at least 10 catches and 100 yards. That's second-most in NFL history. Jerry Rice had 15 such games but it took him 303 games to get there. Johnson has played in 127 games.
"He's a very good player," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "He can still get deep on you. They know how to use him. They're very good with their play-action game, which makes it hard to get to the quarterback, so he has time to be really creative in his routes. He's one of the top receivers in the league for a reason."
Johnson will be shadowed most of the time by Tramon Williams.
"You want (Williams) on (top receivers) but it's hard to get him on them all the time, because if they line him up in the slot and we're in a zone call, that's when they get them lined up on linebackers and other people," Whitt said. "If we're in man calls, Tramon goes in there and it doesn't matter where they line him up at. If we have a zone call on, he's not going to be on him. You can't call just man every snap. That's what happened this past week. A lot of times, he just wasn't on him because of what we had called."
Patience is a virtue
There's not a lot of patience in professional sports these days, not with so many worst-to-first performances leading many owners to wonder why their team is stuck in a rut.
After replacing Dom Capers following the Texans' disastrous 2-14 season in 2005, Kubiak fashioned records of 6-10, 8-8, 8-8, 9-7 and 6-10 in 2006 through 2010. Not many owners would have stuck with continued mediocrity, but owner Bob McNair and general manager Rick Smith stuck with Kubiak.
Finally, last season, the Texans emerged. If not for Schaub's season-ending injury, the Texans might have been the AFC's Super Bowl representative. After Matt Leinart went down, undrafted third-string rookie T.J. Yates led the team to the playoffs as the Texans finished 10-6 and thrashed Cincinnati in the wild-card round before losing at Baltimore.
"We had the first pick in the draft a few years back, and that's not a good thing, so we knew what the hell we were facing, and we came in here to rebuild a program and put in a program that we felt would give us a chance to be successful and thought we were heading in the right direction each and every year," Kubiak said. "A couple of years back, we went 6-10 and took a step back, we lost a lot of close games. I believed in what we were doing; thank God he did, too. We're very fortunate from that standpoint because, in this business, sometimes people make some very quick decisions. Fortunately, our guy hung in there and hopefully we can reward him here in the future."
— Capers' tenure as Houston's coach couldn't have started better. On Sept. 8, 2002, rookie No. 1 pick David Carr hit former Packers receiver Corey Bradford for a 65-yard touchdown for the decisive score as the Texans stunned Dallas 19-10 to win the first game in franchise history.
While the start was great, the rest was a disaster. Leading the team from 2002 through 2005, Capers finished 18-46. After a promising 7-9 record in 2004, Houston took a giant step back by going 2-14. Carr was sacked an astounding 68 times and Capers' defense gave up at least 31 points on six occasions.
"I've always felt this way, and I tell the players this: If you put your heart and soul into something, give it everything you've got, and you can walk off that field and look at yourself in the mirror and know that you did that, then you move on and you have no regrets," Capers said. "And I really don't have any. I've been blessed in some of the things we accomplished. The first expansion team (with Carolina), nobody will ever match our records there. We didn't do it to the extent there in Houston – a different set of rules, a different time – but I think we did things the right way, and I think we laid a pretty decent foundation. I don't have any regrets. I learned a long time ago in this business: Give it everything you've got, because there's a lot of variables that you don't have any control over. And if you start concerning yourself too much with those, you're not going to do this for as long as I've done it."
— The Packers and Texans have played each other twice. In 2004, when Capers' was the Texans coach, the Packers won 16-13 at Houston as Brett Favre rallied the team from a 13-3 deficit in the fourth quarter. Ryan Longwell's 46-yard field goal on the final play decided the outcome.
— In 2008, the Texans beat the Packers 24-21 on their own last-play field goal. In a game that defined the Packers' season of frustrating close losses, the Texans won on Kris Brown's 40-yard field goal as time expired. The Packers appeared headed toward a go-ahead score but holding and a sack forced a punt. Pinned at the 3, Schaub hit two players with Wisconsin ties – former Packers fullback Vonta Leach and former Wisconsin tight end Owen Daniels – for gains of 22 and 27 yards. Houston, clearly not bothered by the kickoff temperature of 3, piled up 549 yards on offense.
— The last time a Houston-based professional football team started a season 5-0? Quarterback Jim Kelly led the Houston Gamblers to a 5-0 start in the USFL in 1985. The Houston Oilers produced just one 3-0 start in their 37 seasons. Overall, the Texans' longest winning streak is seven in a row, set last season.
The other sideline
— Since the start of the 2010 season, Foster leads the NFL with 3,372 rushing yards, 99.2 rushing yards per game, 31 rushing touchdowns, 4,653 yards from scrimmage, 136.9 scrimmage yards per game and 36 total touchdowns. He's averaging 114.5 rushing yards in home games, a full 20 yards better than second-ranked Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs. More than just a runner, he's had 128 receptions for 1,281 yards and five scores over the last two-plus seasons. Only Darren Sproles and Ray Rice have more receiving yards among backs during that period. Foster has 5,003 yards from scrimmage in 40 career games. Only Edgerrin James (36) and Eric Dickerson (39) got there faster among backs.
"He's a great back," safety Morgan Burnett said. "He's one of the top backs in the league. He's very versatile in the run game and pass so you really have to be on top of your keys. When you tackle that guy, you really have to wrap up and run your feet, because you see on film that he's breaking a lot of tackles. He's capable of making big plays at any time."
— Under Kubiak, the Texans are 41-15 when they produce more rushing yards and 37-5 when they have at least 30 rushing attempts. However, they're averaging 3.9 yards per attempt after 4.8 in 2010 and 4.5 in 2011. Make the game one-dimensional? The Texans are just 3-30 with less than 25 rushing attempts.
— The passing game has made an impact, though. Schaub ranks fourth in touchdown percentage (5.3), third in interception percentage (1.3), fourth in rating (99.2) and fifth in average yards per attempt (7.64).
— The Texans are a lot like the 2010 and 2011 Packers in one regard. During the Packers' 19-game winning streak, they never trailed in the fourth quarter. During Houston's 5-0 start, it's led at halftime and after three quarters in every game. The Texans have trailed for 18:52 of a possible 300 minutes. In the first half, Houston has outscored its foes 93-28.
— This is strength vs. strength: Green Bay is No. 1 in red-zone efficiency (73.3 percent touchdowns) while Houston's defense ranks sixth (36.4 percent touchdowns).
"The red zone is a very important situation," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Historically, we've spent more time there than probably in our earlier years together. We had the one year where we weren't as productive. I think the formula is continuing to work. Once again, it's based around the quarterback. The quarterback needs the opportunities to attack the end zone and the ability to take the completion. Also, I think our scheme has been very good there, too. I think it's something we've develeoped over the last couple years. I think it's one of our better situations."
— Not only are the Texans plus-8 in turnovers while the Packers are minus-1, Houston ranks first in third-down defense (25.8 percent) and seventh in third-down offense (44.2 percent). The Packers are in the middle of the pack in both categories: 15th on offense (39.7 percent) and 14th on defense (36.1 percent).
— While the Packers possessed the ball for just 24:44 against the Colts, Houston leads the league with an average time of possession of 35:29. How's this: The Texans have won the time-of-possession battle in 18 of 20 quarters this season. Why? Look at the Texans' defense, which has forced 17 three-and-outs. They've allowed one drive of 5-plus minutes. No other team has allowed fewer than four such drives.
— Houston's pass defense has allowed a league-best 51.2 completion percentage. Rodgers' 68.8 percent accuracy ranks third.
— These are two of the best quarterback-sacking defenses in the league. Green Bay ranks second in sack percentage at 9.84 – a dramatic upgrade over last season, when it ranked 32nd. Houston ranks fourth with a sack percentage of 9.52. On the other hand, the Texans' offense is the best in pass protection with a sack percentage allowed of just 1.97. The Packers are 32nd at a whopping 11.05 percent.
— Johnson needs 61 receiving yards to become the 37th player in NFL history to reach 10,000. Johnson would be the sixth-fastest to the milestone if he does it on Sunday, his 127th career game. Randy Moss (14,946), Tony Gonzalez (133,603), Reggie Wayne (12,002), Steve Smith (10,626) and Green Bay's Donald Driver (10,089) are the other active players with 10,000 receiving yards.
— Watt has as many fumble recoveries (two) as the entire Packers defense has forced. Talking about absence making the heart grow fonder: When the Packers faced the Texans in 2008, Desmond Bishop forced two fumbles.
— The Packers must avoid third-and-long. On third-and-6-plus, Rodgers has thrown 23 passes and been sacked seven times. Houston's top-ranked third-down defense has been dominant on third-and-6-plus with a rate of 6-of-36. Then again, Houston's defense is dominant on practically any third down. On third-and-3-plus, opponents are converting just 9-of-53 — meaning the Texans have gotten off the field 79.2 percent of the time.
Quote of the week
Or the best quote that we couldn't work into a story ...
Whitt, on a pass defense that has fallen from No. 1 after three games to No. 16 after five games: "We've had two games where we've had good pass defense, two games where we've had poor and one game where it was average. That's why we're sitting at 16th if you look at yards – and that's all anybody cares about is yards. We're average right now and we have to play better. We can't make mistakes. When we have a double on a guy, we have to double him. When we have an opportunity to get the ball, we have to get the ball. There's not going to be any excuses made. We've got to play at a level that is winning football."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.