Watt returns to practice, inspires Texans with rousing talk

J.J. Watt is back. Not all the way back, but back nonetheless.

That he’s back practising at all is surprising, just days before his Houston Texans play host to the Buffalo Bills on Saturday, in the first of two AFC wild-card playoff games (4:35 p.m. EST, CTV via ESPN).

Because when the star defensive end went down in late October with a serious chest-muscle tear, even he thought he was done for the season.

“This game can be beautiful and it also can be brutal,” Watt tweeted at the time. “Absolutely gutted that I won’t be able to finish the season with my guys and give the fans what they deserve.”

The 30 year old, however, underwent corrective surgery within a week and rehabbed maniacally. Buzz began a week or two ago that Watt might be able to return for the playoffs.

Sure enough, the Texans on New Year’s Eve activated the three-time NFL defensive player of the year off injured reserve, after missing the last eight games of the regular season.

On Tuesday, Watt joined teammates on the practice field and, on Wednesday, he practised in pads for the first time since late October, if only on a limited basis.

Talk about a happy new year.

Unsurprisingly, Watt has made an immediate impact. Teammates, including offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, raved about the brief, inspiring speech Watt gave at Tuesday’s end-of-practice “breakdown,” when players all huddle with one arm in and one leader says something that hopefully resonates before all depart for the locker room.

Tunsil said Watt’s words of wisdom gave him chills.

“I appreciate that,” Watt told reporters late Wednesday afternoon. “It’s nice to know that the words … hit home.

“I’m not going to go into details about what it was. It was just what I felt needed to be said. It’s very important, it’s a huge week. It’s the NFL playoffs. Twenty teams are home, only 12 teams are left.”

A couple minutes later, Watt decided to share a little more — pertaining to the urgency of their opportunity.

“You can’t ever take it for granted. That was the message I was trying to get across to the young guys. With some of these guys, it’s their first year in the NFL. You win the division and go to the playoffs and (they maybe think) this is what you do. Well, no. You have to take advantage of every opportunity you have. And with the talent that we have in that locker room (we should).

“Throughout practice this week and then taking it over to game day on Saturday, that’s our mentality and that’s our goal — to take every single day, every meeting, every practice, every rep as seriously and as focused as you can.”

Watt recounted his first two seasons — 2011 and 2012 — when the Texans won 22-of-32 games and advanced to the second round of the AFC playoffs both times.

“Then you get slapped in the face with a 2-14 (season) and get humbled real quick,” he said. “You learn this league will humble you. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter how good you are, or think you are. This league will humble you.

“I’m in my ninth year. I appreciate how difficult this game is, I appreciate how hard it is to win in this league. And so it makes winning that much sweeter, and it makes you crave it that much more. So I’m really looking forward to being out there with the guys.”

Watt, of course, was the NFL’s dominant defender in the early half of the 2010s. From 2012-15 he was named NFL defensive MVP three times, was an all-pro all four seasons, and in that span posted monstrous numbers for a pass rusher: 69 sacks, 190 QB hits, 119 tackles-for-loss, 15 forced fumbles and 41 passes knocked down.

Injuries have rocked Watt’s career since.

Before the 2016 season, he had surgical repairs done on five torn or partially torn groin and abdominal muscles, which had severely limited his performances late in 2015. Plus he had surgery in July 2016 to fix a herniated back disk. He played in only three games that season before requiring more back surgery.

In 2017, Watt played in only the first five games before suffering a fracture to the tibial plateau — essentially the top of the main lower leg bone where it connects to the knee.

Watt recovered again and played the entire 2018 season, leading the league with seven forced fumbles. He also had his fourth-best season for sacks, with 16.

This season, Watt registered just four sacks, four tackles-for-loss and three pass knockdowns over the Texans’ first eight games. But he did have 21 QB hits and, without him, the effectiveness of Houston’s defence markedly decreased. As the Houston Chronicle reported, prior to the game in which Watt was injured the Texans ranked 18th in total defence, eighth vs. the run and 24th vs. the pass, then without Watt finished 28th in total defence, 20th against the run and 30th against the pass.

With only one more practice (on Thursday) before Saturday’s vital game, how does Watt hope to contribute against the Bills?

“We talked about all the risks involved — what risks may be involved,” he said. “But at the end of the day, if I can (contribute) I will.

“(Practice) felt great … It felt like football. It felt like how it’s supposed to feel. It felt great to be out there, to be hitting in pads, to be working on all the things I wanted to work on — bull rush, tackle, pass-rush moves. Everything I wanted to do. It feels good. It feels like I’m home.”

Bills say task tougher with Watt’s return

How much tougher is the Buffalo Bills’ task of defeating the host Houston Texans on Saturday with three-time NFL defensive MVP J.J. Watt back in the lineup?

“Yeah, tough,” Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “You go back and try to evaluate as many games as you can — which is all of them. He’s an exceptional football player.

“He’s been an all-pro for a variety of reasons, he’s dynamic, he can affect the pass game, affect the run game, I’ve got a lot of respect for him and how he handles himself off the field, those things he’s done. On the field, he’s a beast — and you have to have a plan for him.”

Bills head coach Sean McDermott admitted his coaching staff is keeping its eye on the news this week regarding Watt’s return from injured reserve.

“I think the world knows what kind of player J.J. Watt is.”

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