HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans have experience in figuring out how to replace the production of J.J. Watt. For the third time in four seasons, the defensive end will miss more than half of a season after tearing his pectoral muscle on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.
This time, there’s no Jadeveon Clowney to help pick up the slack, as the Texans traded the Pro Bowl linebacker to the Seahawks before the season. This time, Watt’s absence will be felt even more.
Watt’s last play of the 2019 season shows exactly what Houston will miss without their defense's best player, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. On first down in the second quarter, Watt ran through the Raiders' offensive line, tackling rookie running back Josh Jacobs for a 6-yard loss. He tore his pectoral muscle while making the tackle.
Watt had four sacks through eight games this season, but those numbers don’t show his full impact. He had 20 quarterback hits, the most in the NFL though eight games. After Watt announced he was done for the season, several players pointed out that not only would the Texans miss his production on the field, but his leadership as well.
“He's a great football player,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “He's an even better guy. Unfortunately, we have been in this position before, and I think we have got some guys here, a lot of different guys -- it's not going to be one guy that takes his place.”
Watt's absence also means the Texans’ secondary could struggle. Entering Houston’s Week 9 game against the Jaguars, the Texans were allowing an average of 276.8 passing yards per game, which is the fifth-worst in the NFL. And now, without the pressure that Watt creates, quarterbacks will have more time to find weaknesses in Houston’s banged-up secondary.
It happened on Sunday, even with Watt on the field for a half. Oakland quarterback Derek Carr threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns, including a 65-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow.
So how will the Texans replace Watt?
The trade deadline came and went without the Texans trading for a pass-rusher to replace Watt. While Houston does have some draft capital it could spend to acquire a replacement, O’Brien was clear that he’s aware of the importance of balancing the short-term needs with the future of the organization. O’Brien and the Texans have showed this year they are willing to be aggressive in the trade market; Houston made four trades on Aug. 31, including one that sent two first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills. The Texans also gave up a 2020 draft pick for cornerback Gareon Conley from the Raiders on Oct. 21.
O’Brien has also said he doesn’t “want to get into the business for just renting a player for eight” games, preferring to trade for players who are under contract for longer than the current season.
So how will the Texans replace Watt with the roster they have?
Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus is the only proven pass-rusher the Texans have right now, and he admitted on Monday that he is no longer going to be able to take advantage of the double- and sometimes triple-teams Watt often saw, which allowed Mercilus more one-on-one matchups. Watt was double-teamed on 29.8% of his pass-rushes as an edge rusher, which is the second-highest rate in the NFL this season, according to ESPN’s pass-rush win rate powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. Mercilus has 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery through eight games.
Last season, even with Watt on the field, D.J. Reader moved over to defensive end and Brandon Dunn played nose tackle. O’Brien said that is a possibility going forward. He also pointed out the versatility of outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin (both acquired in the trade for Clowney) and rookie defensive end Charles Omenihu. Omwnihu, a fifth-round pick, said Monday that he feels comfortable rushing more from the edge and should get more playing time going forward.
But although Houston has options, O’Brien said it’s going to understandably take a team effort to replace Watt’s production.
“You’re not replacing him with one person,” O’Brien said. “You’re replacing him with different things, players, scheme, whatever it might be. ... No one person is going to take the spot of a Hall of Fame player. But at the end of the day, these things happen and we've got to move forward and do what we have to do to win games.”