A season ago, the Houston Texans had the best defense in the NFL.
And that was without three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
In Watt’s absence, Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 pick who had spent his first two NFL seasons dealing with injuries and was now finally healthy, played as the disruptive force the Texans saw when they drafted him in 2014.
Now with both players finishing the offseason activities healthy, the Texans hope to get both back at that level and able to intimidate opposing offenses together in 2017.
“The greatest thing about those two is that they are the ultimate competitors,” defensive line coach Anthony Weaver said. “So I think whenever you have those two and Whitney Mercilus, they’re all going to push each other to reach new heights. I know on the practice field, they’re like, ‘I’m going to get there first. I’m getting to the quarterback first. I’m going to make more plays today.’ And when you have that competition as a group, you just become better.”
Last season without Watt on the field, head coach Bill O’Brien said that opposing teams were able to double-team Clowney and that, although it helped to have other guys — Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney — playing well, the Texans did focus on working on a game plan to free Clowney so he could continue to make disruptive plays.
But while Weaver said it’s “absolutely not” as easy as just sliding Watt back into the lineup and expecting the defense to take a huge step forward, he made it clear that is on him and the rest of the coaching staff to figure out.
“Every time both guys are on the field together, we all become better as a unit,” Weaver said. “There’s no addition by subtraction because of J.J. Watt. Absolutely not.
“We’re very fortunate that we have a bunch of dynamic players, but up front we have those three [Watt, Clowney and Mercilus] in particular. And it’s up to us coaching-wise to make sure we put them in the best position to be successful. Sometimes that’s not an easy task as it seems to be. But the expectations haven’t changed. We know where we finished a year ago. We know what we expect out of our unit this season, and obviously having J.J. back is going to do nothing but help us achieve those goals.”
Assistant head coach Romeo Crennel, who served as the Texans’ defensive coordinator the past three seasons, said he and the coaching staff are looking forward to the problems the group presents to opposing teams with Watt, Clowney and Mercilus chasing the quarterback at the same time.
“I think we all know what J.J. brings to the table,” Crennel said. “For opponents to try to figure out where they’re going to send their protection: Do they send it to J.J.? Do they send it to Clowney? Exactly how they’re going to do all that as far as from a protection standpoint, I think that’s going to make it extremely difficult on the offense. So, if we can keep both of those guys healthy, and Whitney as well, I think it will be difficult for them.”
Earlier in the offseason, when Watt did his first interviews since reinjuring his back and being ruled out for the rest of the season, his eyes lit up when he was asked about what the No. 1-in-2016 defense could do with him back on the field.
“We’re really excited about it. Obviously, we have a lot of great pieces in place,” Watt said. “We have a phenomenal defensive staff. We have phenomenal guys on the team, so it’s all about just going out there and doing what we’re able to do. I think a lot of it comes down to belief, and I think we see what we’re capable of doing and then it comes down to believing that you can take another step and another step, and I think we have that level of belief now and I think it’s only going to grow.”