Kevin Zeitler (R) tries to keep his break-through season going against an old friend.
BENGALS RG KEVIN ZEITLER VS. TEXANS RE J.J. WATT
You can tell Jim McNally is back in town.
McNally, the man generally regarded as the father of modern NFL offensive line play, is at Paul Brown Stadium in his role as a Bengals consultant for about 10 days and you can be walking down the hall when a man suddenly accosts you as you walk out of the bathroom.
"You're J.J. Watt," the man barks. "Give me a swim a move."
And so McNally tries to defeat your feeble attempts to imitate a guy on his way to becoming a Hall-of-Famer in his continuing quest to sharpen his scouting reports for the coaches.
"I think Watt's the best defensive player in the league," says Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander, a McNally disciple who has plotted against pass rushers for the past 20 years. "You compare him with Reggie White and Bruce Smith because he's got the ability to take over a game by himself."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth cautions that Watt is great, but he can't be placed on a pedestal and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is inclined to agree as he preps for Watt and his Texans Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Houston.
"I've never seen one guy beat 11. It just doesn't happen. I've seen one guy disrupt 11, but not beat them by himself," Jackson says. "Now, he has a nice host of other characters, too, beside him that people don't talk about because he's so good at what he does."
But when it comes to Watt, Jackson also has to get the superlatives out of the way.
"Lord have mercy," Jackson says. "Oh my God. He's a man-beast. He is. I mean, what can you say? Whatever superlative that you want to use, you can use it. He's as good as I've ever seen play the game. He plays with unbelievable energy and tenacity, determination, desire."
While the 6-5, 289-pound Watt is wrecking the league, the 6-4, 315-pound Zeitler is quietly putting together the kind of elite season the Bengals envisioned when they made him a first-round pick in 2012.
Watt is about to become the first defensive player to be named MVP in two decades. He leads the NFL with 29 hits on the quarterback and four forced fumbles and is tied for first with 14 tackles for loss.
If that's not enough to cement The Legend that began three years ago when he picked off Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton out of thin air at the line of scrimmage for a touchdown return when both were rookies in the 2011 Wild Card Game, then last week in Cleveland he split out and caught Ryan Mallett's first NFL touchdown pass. With four, he now has many touchdowns this season as Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green.
McNally compares him to two other Hall-of-Famers.
"He's like Dan Hampton with that ability to make himself small. Skinny himself up on the blocker and get around the edge," McNally says. "He's a little bit like Randy White size wise. (White) wasn't as big, but he's got the long arms. He can come around the block and get flat down the line of scrimmage and make the play. Most people you think you go around the block and he can't catch the play from behind. When he hits the opponent and bull rushes him and gets into him, he can roll his hips and really extend his hips like a hip thrust, almost like an offensive blocker."
But it's the arms and how he uses them that has McNally marveling. He literally never lets a guy get in his grill.
"His arms are very long," McNally says. "He can lock a guy out. He locks his arms and he always gets separation. He never gets close to the blocker. His arms are always extended."
One guy who won't put him on a pedestal is Zeitler, Watt's off-season Wisconsin workout partner in his hometown of Waukesha, next door to Watt's town of Pewaukee. He may put him on the leg lift machine, but not a pedestal.
"He is among the best. He's so ridiculously strong in every lift going down," Zeitler says. "It's always good to have somebody like that because you want somebody like that to compete against or do the same as.
"He's super impressive. He has a natural athleticism that I'll never have. He's a very, very impressive workout warrior."
Watt is on the cover of Sports Illustrated in between jaunts to Hollywood and is talking about how he may go into movies after he's done playing. But Zeitler doesn't see a difference in the kid who walked on to the Wisconsin defensive line after transferring.
"I see him around a lot more on TV, but nothing has ever changed about his attitude for preparing," says Zeitler, who calls Watt's focus "laser-pointed."
"There's no doubt he takes his job very seriously and he's not going to let anyone outwork him."
Zeitler was a backup when he was a true freshman for the Badgers, the year Watt was the new kid trying to impress, His mile-a-minute motor didn't make him many friends among the starters on the offensive line.
"He was the world's best scout team player ever," Zeitler says. "We called him, 'a hero, because the guy tried so hard. I wasn't starting that year … but he made life pretty much a living hell for the starting O-line that year. I never went against him (that year)."
Maybe that's why they're still friends. But Zeitler doesn't think it's an advantage that he knows him well or has gone against him on the field.
"I think he's a completely different player than he was when he was in college," Zeitler says. "He was good, he was sturdy, he made a lot of plays like he does now, but now he's added a pass rush element. Ever since he got into the NFL his pass rush is phenomenal. He still does everything with his effort and he's a phenomenal player. Knowing him won't be any advantage. You just have to go out there and do it."
Zeitler isn't the only guy Watt is going to face. He's listed as the right end but he spent much of last Sunday in Cleveland torturing the right side and the Bengals are expecting Zeitler and right tackle Andre Smith to get him most of the time, but every linemen will get him at some point during the day. Watt has always had the relentless motor, so Zeitler is making it pretty simple.
"He never stops. If you think you've got him, you're not done yet. Until that ball is down field in the receiver's hands, you can never stop," Zeitler says. "It just comes down to finishing. You think you're done, but you're not. You've got to find a way to finish, but sometimes he's just so good at reading the ball and he's got the appropriate skills to do it, he can (pick it off)."
But the Texans better not sleep on Zeitler. Although he was limited Wednesday with an annoying calf injury that has taken him out of four games this season, he says he feels so much better in his third year. During the offseason he got his Sleep Apnea treated and instead of getting four hours of sleep, he's wearing a mask to bed and getting six to nine hours a night.
"It depends how busy I am," Zeitler says. "It was about this time last year I hurt my foot and that was miserable. I'm in a pretty good place right now."
Zeitler overhauled his body and his preparation this past offseason after he says he didn't manage his time well following his rookie year.
"I got heavy, the injuries added up and everything went downhill," Zeitler says. "I mostly re-worked my diet. I made my whole offseason based on performance and lined up never to go through what I went through and it's worked out so far."
Zeitler usually worked out twice a day and it helps he's married to another gym rat. So there were a lot of days back home that he'd work out with Watt and the guys in the morning and go to her gym in the afternoon. Now all that strength is being transferred into his play. All signs are pointing to him playing after he helped running back Jeremy Hill get many of his 152 yards in New Orleans last week. He and fullback Ryan Hewitt helped pop the 62-yarder that led to the late field goal in the first half.
"Early in his career, Zeitler was like a muscler, a wrestler," Alexander says. "But this year he's playing with good pad level and running his feet and really blocking well. He's a terrific player."
McNally has also noticed Zeitler's strength. He'll need every ounce Sunday.
"Football isn't like it was 20, 30 years ago," McNally says. "It wasn't as year-round. There wasn't as much exposure to weights or strength training. With this guy (Watt), it's his hobby."
The Bengals have their own gym rat as Zeitler makes another appointment with his buddy.