Over the course of 16 starts, 137 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, 10 passes defensed, 54 hurries, 51 quarterback hits, 20.5 sacks, 1 interception, 4 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, and 4 touchdowns (3 receiving), the 2014 Houston Texans were squished across J.J. Watt’s shoulders as he carried them like an Atlas myth to a 9-7 record in 2014.
When you think about that season, which game is bright hot golden light? Was it week one when Watt controlled Washington’s ground game and Robert Griffin III couldn’t complete a pass to the sideline? Was it in Oakland when the infield skidded across the grass, a former vital landmark of summer’s death rattle, one I’ll miss for eternity, when Watt caught his first touchdown pass? Was it when he turned Gosder Cherilus into goop and dodged a laser beam security system to heist a fumble recovery and proceed to score? Was it against Tennessee when Charlie Whitehurst’s floppy hat was ruffled and Zach Mettenberger was made an example of the digital age’s narcissistic front camera obsession? Or do those six combined sacks against Jacksonville blur together into one translucent glow?
For me, there’s one game from Watt’s all-time unbelievable, all-time great 2014 season, that will never be entirely scrubbed from my brain, even if I’m lucky enough to be drooling in diapers and unable to remember my own name one day.
In week four against Buffalo, 2-1 Houston took on the surprisingly 2-1 Buffalo Bills. The Bills were quarterbacked by EJ Manuel, head coached by Doug Marrone, yes that same Doug Marrone, and were led by their side scroll arcade fighter defensive line composed of Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Jerry Hughes. 2014 was a long time ago. Houston would end up winning 23-17, a game where Watt’s pick six was the deciding factor, and his 5 tackles, 9 quarterback hits (one was called against him for roughing the passer), and 1 defensed pass, was the cosmic space turtle this game was played upon.
Destruction and domination began on the first drive, the first play of the game. Watt (#99) is lined up as a 4i over former Houston Texan flameout, and personal I told you so, Seantrel Henderson (#66), in Houston’s base 3-4 defense.
Buffalo fakes lead to C.J. Spiller. The right side of the offensive line ends up blocking big on big. That means right guard Erik Pears (#79) comes off the line of scrimmage low, and ‘explosive’ to move the line of scrimmage, sell the run, and then sit. The issue is he’s having to block Watt by himself. Watt has the ‘B’ gap. Pears oversteps to ensure he covers Watt up. Watt reads this, uses his pad level to drive a shoulder into his chest, and then comes back across his face to the outside shoulder.
Pears’s hands are outside, not inside, and he smothers Watt. It’s all he can do to prevent the sack in exchange for a non-holding call. Still, despite all of this, Watt is able to make a play on Manuel. Justin Tuggle doesn’t even bother playing the pass. This gives Brian Cushing a tough funnel to defend since he’s the backside linebacker covering the first back released out of the backfield. It’s a tough three yard gain. The quickness and explosion here are absolutely unbelievable.
One play later, it’s 3rd and 7, and Watt is at it again. Most defensive players occasionally wreck plays, the special players dismantle entire drives, and the transcendent ones control entire games.
Houston is in a 5-1, they roll their safeties, switching Kendrick Lewis (#21) from free to strong, and their Nickle, or Buffalo linebacker is Alakazam, the two spoon D.J. Swearinger (#36). Watt is a 4i, set up to rush against then rookie, and future San Antonio Commander, Cyril Richardson (#77). 25 years of age. Buzzed cut and murderous. Back before all the injuries. Back when he was an interior pass rusher.
Instead Houston runs a loop along the interior. Tim Jamison (#96) plays the ‘A’ gap and manages to get Eric Wood (#70) to turn his shoulders and devote the entirety of his allegiance to him. Watt pops Richardson, rips under, and buzzsaws through the interior of the line of scrimmage. It’s almost as if he experiences time in a different manner than everyone else. The ball comes out floppy. Manuel can’t step into his throw with that great white leviathan about to devour him whole.
Possession changes. Four plays. Shane Lechler punts it into the endzone. My personal favorite part of this game isn’t the pick six, or the outrageous number of quarterback hits, but the fact that Watt had zero sacks, while Jared Crick and Jamison combined for two this game. Sacks are the end result of consistent play, or a lazy gander for those to build arguments against the merits of Jadeveon Clowney. They aren’t the end all be all.
Watt’s monomaniacal pursuit of the quarterback made him an altruistic mother bird this game. Carving and regurgitating Manuel into the chirping starving scrotums along the defensive line. It’s 2nd & 8 and 11:37 left. He gets his hands on Richardson this time.
Buffalo slides their protection one gap left. Watt shimmies and sizes up Richardson, maintaining control the entire play. He gets his hands on the chest first. He sees Wood blocking the ‘A’ gap, and recognizes he has one way out. From there he yanks down Richardson’s outside shoulder, rips with his inside arm, and pins him back with the same arm. He’s free, but he’s deep in the pocket. This is a doughnut in the parking lot, an Aaron Donald bend back to Manuel, who accidentally steps away, and ends up on the ground with Crick’s neckbeard dripping all over him.
Even the most banal, inconsequential plays are beautiful. Fill your diaphragm. Look deeper. Smell and stare at pistils and antennas and you’ll realize they are just as complicated as the entire universe itself. Manuel never managed more than 4.0 yards a carry, or accrued more than 200 rushing yards in a season, he was never a run threat, and yet, Marrone the trickster shows some zone read action with Watt on the backside of the run. This is the prettiest backside zone read defense I’ve ever seen. Dummies in August become flesh in September. If there was a puddle on the field he’d drown in this same spot.
Crick has been hungry all his life, and has sack statistics to pad to get a new deal in Denver. On this same drive it’s 2nd and 6 with 6:25 left. Houston is in their over front. Watt is a ‘5’ lined up on Henderson’s outside shoulder. Buffalo is sliding their pass protection left, which gives Watt a free rush against Henderson.
Unfathomable. It’s absurd how quickly Watt diagnoses Henderson’s attempt to pass set. While everyone is making up their mind, Watt is swiping away Henderson’s punch, and flying on by towards Manuel. 2nd and 6 against this version of Buffalo means quick pass. Watt leaps to get big, to prevent the smoke, like he’s some trucker hat avian taking off out of an above ground pool. The quarterback climbs to the line of scrimmage and succumbs to Crick and Jamison.
It’s still the first quarter. It’s still 0-0. Buffalo managed to have four possessions in the first quarter. Four three and outs combined from both teams. The most plays in a drive was six up to this point. Quarterback hit #3 came on 1st and 10 with 2:50 left. It’s Watt v. Richardson again. This isn’t even a pass rush though. Richardson sets on his outside shoulder and Watt scampers around him and tosses an unneeded rip for good measure. He takes down Manuel low. Jerrell Powe slaps some meatloaf on the ball and the slant attempt falls incomplete.
The run defense was on display this game too, but it’s merely a side trail. Watt executed an expansive collection of moves to decapitate Buffalo’s run game at the line of scrimmage.
Here, he stuffs the tight end’s down block inside, and spins back outside to trip Fred Jackson up on a power stretch run.
Here, he is the warlock, floating over the stiff and robotic Pears and sends him stumbling—weeeeee!
Here, on Buffalo’s own goal line, he casually swims over Henderson just like how khaki pants get put on in the morning, before yanking the back down from behind.
Here, he beats the outside zone step with a quick rip and misses the tackle in the backfield. Buffalo managed to pick up 4.17 yards a carry on 23 rushing attempts because Houston played a lot of six man boxes, and their second level defenders missed a plethora of tackles.
And here, Buffalo finally figured out how to neutralize Watt. Just wait for Justin Tuggle to drop a banana peel.
Because of some slippery Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller carries and a roughing the passer penalty on Watt, and an Andre Johnson fumble that led to ocean view field position, Buffalo was able to take a 10-0 lead in Houston. The Bills were looking to double up on their first touchdown after Ryan Fitzpatrick heaved an interception that even DeAndre Hopkins couldn’t go up and get.
It’s 1st & 10 with 5:47 left. It’s quarterback hit #4. Watt is a wide ‘5’ against Henderson, and is facing a chip from tight end Scott Chandler (#84).
This isn’t even a pass rush. This is ice skating. Watt takes a little while to decipher what’s occurring. There’s a play fake in the backfield. The tight end is in a position to block outside zone. Watt gets wide and reads Henderson’s pass set. He then runs all the way to the ‘A’ gap to escape the chip, spins, pirouettes back outside, like the spinning vortex a djinn floats upon. The ball is too high for Sammy Watkins. Swearinger doesn’t need to convince himself he should have had this one, he completely believes he does.
On this same drive, Watt defends a screen by splitting left tackle Cordy Glenn (#77) and Pears (#66), getting his hands on Spiller before he drools into the flat, and almost brings Manuel down after Henderson gropes him from behind. Watt plays four different players here. Five yards is an inferno.
No matter who the quarterback was, or how atrocious the offense was, Bill O’Brien’s teams were always good for at least three competent drives a game. Buffalo gets the ball again, but is up only 10-7 and attempts to make something happen before the half.
Watt is matched up against right guard Pears. Romeo Crennel had a doctorate in Buffalo’s pass protection and was able to consistently get Watt on the man side of the protection.
Watt understands it as well. With Jackson in the backfield on his side of the line of scrimmage, and the coverage responsibilities of Swearinger and Mike Mohamed (#54), a simple man coverage funnel, Watt assumes, and guesses correctly, Buffalo is sliding away from him.
He leaps out of his stance.
Rips, and turns away from Pears, coyly making his chest invisible, narrowing the target.
The block is won once his hips are even with Pears. This takes a little over a second.
Interior pressure is more valuable than exterior pressure. The defender has a shorter path to the quarterback, and skipping the ball quickly is strained from difficult to nearly impossible. Additionally, there’s no space for the quarterback to operate. Quarterbacks can’t merely step up. Manuel would have to evaporate to escape this gore. It’s like forcing a bleeding scuba diver to juke a Great White. The ball falls harmlessly in front of Watkins.
The drive ends without end of half of heroics. At halftime the game is 10-7 Buffalo. Watt only has five quarterback hits that aren’t penalized. The Bills get a chance to increase their lead quickly in the second half. Fitzpatrick donks a pass off Kyle Williams’s meatball head, and curses the funny shaped ball as it flutters underneath the Garrett Graham covering Nigel Bradham (#53).
The Bills start their drive at Houston’s 19 yard line, then quickly find themselves facing 3rd and 3 at Houston’s 12. At a minimum, Buffalo should end up with a 13-7 lead, valuable points in a constipated bathroom stall fight. Then the play happens.
Houston crams the line of scrimmage and walk up pressure in each ‘A’ gap, and sneaks Kareem Jackson from the slot to the edge. Houston is playing cover seven behind their front, a man match version version of quarters, that leads to Brooks Reed (#58) and Swearinger dropping into hooks, and Jonathan Joseph (#24) breaking into the flat on a cut technique after the first receiver takes an inside release. Keep this thought under your tongue.
From behind, you can see how Houston has a defender in every gap before the snap. Buffalo makes a smoke call, which you can see from Henderson’s wafting motion. With every gap loaded up, Henderson is signaling to Manuel and Jackson he’s going to block down one gap, and that Jackson will either need to pick up Watt, or Watt will be unblocked off the edge.
Instead Reed and Swearinger drop back. Henderson has no one to block. And Jackson still runs into the flat. Manuel reads the four deep shell, the typical pre-snap look for a quarters defense. The flat is typically the flabby part of this defense, but it’s cover seven, not cover four, and Joseph is breaking on the swing route. Manuel sticks with the typical pre-snap decision with Watt coming free off the edge. Swing it to Jackson.
Off the edge, Watt isn’t ears cut off head down. It’s never this easy. He reads Manuel and mirrors his entire drop back. Watt plants once the ball is loaded.
Then magic happens.
Lifetime plays like this don’t materialize from nothing. They aren’t blimps. They aren’t the result of right place right time. Overnight success is a lie to masquerade the masses. Plays like this are the result of play after play of perfect technique, great reps, and consistently perfect play that compounds itself over time, until a situation like this, that feels almost too perfect, comes rising out of the east.
It’s a 14 point swing. Turning what should have been at least a 13-7 Buffalo lead into a 14-10 Houston lead. In the third quarter, Houston would put together one competent drive to go up 17-10.
Houston punts on 4th and 7 at Buffalo’s 38 yard line so Lechler could deliver a 25 yard punt that found its way out of bounds. Run, incomplete pass, Manuel is trying to convert on 3rd and 11 at his own 11 yard line.
After scooping puree with a rubber spoon, Watt finally gets to wear the bib. Buffalo is sliding one gap over right, and blocking man on man on the left side. Jackson looks inside out to help with pass protection. Reed is rushing off the edge. Jamison stunts into the ‘A’ gap, and Watt is looping into the interior of the line.
Pears correctly feels the ‘B’ gap and looks to the ‘A’ gap once Watt takes off. Wood is the one who blocks this incorrectly. He turns his shoulders and sticks to Jamison, leaving a path through the forest for Watt. Watt comes tight around Wood. This is is the crucial part. He isn’t crude and blunt. He takes the shortest path possible.
Manuel reads the left side of the field, and right when he finishes his drop, Watt is murderous and directly in front of him, like a black hat wearing sleep paralysis archetype. Immediately he scurries to get outside the tackle box. Then heaves a spinning heave out of bounds to stave off a safety.
Another three and out. Another Lechler punt. This time Lechler was the undertaker burying the coffin, sticking the ball at Buffalo’s one yard line. Run, incomplete pass, shaken, after all of that, Manuel finds himself facing 3rd & 8 at his own three yard line. In a deeper and more troubling spot than the previous possession.
Watt is a tight outside shade over Richardson. Poor guy. He started four games his rookie season, one of them against this intergalactic football playing deity, and never started another professional game after this season. After being drenched in egg and fried a number of times by Watt, he’s focused entirely on him on this snap. Any slight miscue is exaggerated, and up against his goal line, his offense could be the side surrendering points.
With the back lined up to the left, Buffalo is once again sliding their protection to the opposite side, and playing man on man on the right side. Watt and Mercilus are running a tackle-end stunt. Watt is the hammer with Mercilus looping over the top as they exchange gap responsibilities.
Richardson takes a slide step left, and surprisingly, finds himself in front of Watt after he quickly shimmies. He punches and rides this block the entire way. But Watt has another motive. He’s looking to soak up both blockers to give Mercilus an inside path. Mercilus gets into the guts of the line of scrimmage before looping inside, which prevents Glenn and Richardson from switching these two defenders. Manuel’s release is quick, short, and most of all, inaccurate. The ball soars past Mike Williams (#19).
Bullock knocks in a rare 55 yard field goal, and then Buffalo accidentally finds themselves down 20-17 after Swearinger screws up a cut call between him and Joseph. Joseph feigns covering number one, to break on the out, which leaves Williams strolling past Swearinger, who should have the vertical number one, for an 80 yard touchdown.
The Bills get two more tries down 23-17 to try and take the lead after Bullock puts down a 50 yard field goal. Buffalo went three and out on the first attempt. On the second attempt, Buffalo started with the ball on their own 29 with 1:42 left and zero timeouts. 3rd and 7 was converted after a completion to Fred Jackson. The following play Woods turned a completion into 13 yards, and Buffalo is suddenly at Houston’s 41 with 1:14 remaining.
It’s the same stunt Houston used to spring Watt loose on the goal line earlier. Except this time, Crick is the nose tackle.
And, except this time, Watt completely acts on his own, ignoring the skeleton of the play.
Watt uses his eyes to feign the loop to the interior. His head turns to the sideline.
This leads to Pears moving from the ‘B’ gap to the ‘A’ gap to block Crick, so Wood can pick up Watt on the loop.
It’s a fraudulent glance though. Watt switches back to the ‘B’ gap and uses Crick as a shield to get back around Pears. His inside arm braces Pears from his body, and then he carries out a ridiculous bend in the pocket to get to Manuel. He hits him low. The ball flies high. Darryl Morris peels off the first receiver’s vertical route and secures the bag. Annihilation.
The past is usually a liar. Time envelopes things in a thin mucilaginous layer of yellowed devious slime. This is far from the case. 5 tackles, 9 quarterback hits, 1 defenses pass, 1 interception, and 1 touchdown. Watt’s 2014 performance against Buffalo is even better than it was remembered to be.