FOXBOROUGH — J.J. Watt has played in eight games over the last two seasons, both of which ended early because of major injuries. Yet two of them were against the Patriots. The teams have also practiced against each other and played each other in all but two of Watt’s seven years in the NFL.
That makes him a known quantity and a mystery when the Texans come to Foxborough for Week 1.
“I could tell people I’m feeling unbelievable, I could tell people I’m feeling terrible. They’re not going to believe me and they’re not going to care until I step on that field and prove it for real,” Watt said on Wednesday via conference call. “Sunday’s going to be a lot of fun, I’m really looking forward to hitting the field and just playing the game.”
Watt played three games in 2016 before he needed back surgery on a herniated disk. Last year, Watt played five games before fracturing his left tibial plateau (shinbone) and ending his season.
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year hasn’t made a major impact for Houston since 2015, yet the word from the Texans’ coaches this summer was that Watt looks more like he did from 2012-15 than he did in either of the last years.
“That’s the kind of play I’m seeing from him. There’s no reason he can’t do it again,” coach Bill O’Brien told NBC in August.
There’s no way of proving that before the real games begin, but that’s the version of Watt the Patriots are getting ready for.
“He played in the Rams [preseason] game, albeit two series, and got a sack and looked like the guy that’s been out there,” Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said. “I think probably he could play that way any time. He’s pretty damn good.
“I mean, he may not keep you up at night, but he keeps me up at night.”
What keeps Watt up at night is probably whether he has retained his freakish athleticism. The Texans’ defensive line is formidable for its ability to be multifaceted and move players around to different spots, but the challenge it poses is ultimately simple: The players are incredibly difficult to block.
So, even though the Patriots expect Watt to be rushing from inside and outside on Sunday, that’s not the main concern.
“You’d like to say, ‘He’s always going to be over there,’ but he’s not,” Scarnecchia said. “That’s not earth-shattering, because he’s either going to be a tackle or an end. That’s not as problematic. He’s the problem, but where he plays isn’t.
“When you take a guy like [Jadeveon] Clowney, which they do, and all of a sudden you move him to linebacker, behind the line, it’s not because they want him to cover, they want him to blitz. They want him matched up on the back. That’s a problem.”
Scarnecchia said that last year, when the Patriots gave up five sacks to the Texans, the offensive line didn’t make any mental errors. There were technical errors and physical errors, but often Houston simply won the battles on the line.
Watt played in that game but wasn’t responsible for any of the sacks and still looked like he was working his way back from the 2016 back injury. When game planning this week, the Patriots have assumed he won’t need any grace period this year.
“We expect every player that we play against to be at their best,” coach Bill Belichick said on Monday. “We always expect their best performance, and we usually get that. That’s what we’ll expect from J.J.”
Patriots assistant to the head coach Bret Bielema was Watt’s college coach at Wisconsin. He’s an asset in preparation, but right guard Shaq Mason said that Bielema hasn’t needed to give the offensive line a ton of information on Watt this week.
“We have everything we need to go against him,” Mason said. “We saw him for years on tape. Guys don’t change. They might add new things, but we’re studying all of them.”
After two years mostly spent rehabbing and coping with the disappointment of not playing, it would be a major relief to Watt if the Patriots are right and nothing has changed.