Bengals tackle Eric Winston spent the 2011 season with J.J. Watt in Houston.
BENGALS O-LINE VS TEXANS DE J.J. WATT
In his fifth season Watt continues to wreak devastation among NFL quarterbacks and offenses as he brings his 6-5, 289-pound wrecking ball into Paul Brown Stadium Monday (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) when the 3-5 Texans play the 8-0 Bengals.
Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander already confirmed that earlier this week.
"He has it all. He's literally a first-ballot Hall of Fame player. He's one of the very best defensive players that I've seen in my 25 years," Alexander said. "He's Bruce Smith, Reggie White. That's who he is."
And then there is this from the Texans. Watt "leads his peers since his rookie season in 2011 with a franchise-record 65.5 sacks. Within the top five NFL sack leaders during that time, Watt also leads with 335 tackles, 272 solo tackles, 42 passes defensed, 185 quarterback hits, 118 tackles for loss, 13 forced fumbles and 11 fumble recoveries, according to official NFL statistics.
So we've got that out of the way. The guy is good, second in the NFL with 8.5 sacks.
Although Watt blew up the first post-season appearance of fellow rookies A.J. Green and Andy Dalton with his pluck-the-ball-at-the-line-out-of-thin-air 29-yard interception return back in 2011 and logged a sack in each of his two Wild Card Games against the Bengals, he has yet to chase down Dalton in the regular season for a sack.
In fact, when the Bengals beat the Texans last season in Houston, 22-13, he didn't have a sack, force a fumble, make an interception or score a touchdown, and if the Bengals can repeat that effort again they'll take it.
It will be recalled that's the game right tackle Andre Smith was lost for the season with a torn triceps and Marshall Newhouse had to come off the bench to block the soon-to-be-crowned NFL Defensive Player of the Year and thanks to the scheming of Alexander and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, he did.
Newhouse is long gone to the Giants and the Bengals are hoping Smith can play Monday, but since he missed last Thursday's game with Cleveland in concussion protocol, who knows? The irony is that Smith's backup is Eric Winston, a long-time Texan whose last year in Houston crossed Watt's rookie season.
But since no one knows where Watt is going to line up these days, particularly on third down, all five offensive linemen are going to do more than rub elbows with him at some point in a matchup of two of the best fronts in the NFL at what they do. The Bengals are sixth in allowing the fewest sacks per pass while the Texans are eighth in generating the most sacks per pass.
Plus, the Texans' varying blitz looks that have given them the NFL's leading percentage stopping third downs are pitted against a Bengals offense that is fourth in the league in converting third downs.
In his conference call with the Cincinnati media Wednesday, Watt pointed to the Bengals' quick pass game as a major reason for the solid protection. ProFootballFocus.com confirms with Dalton timed as the fourth fastest in the league at getting rid of the ball.
But Texans head coach Bill O'Brien warned Wednesday that Watt can line up anywhere and told his Cincinnati media conference call that he could be at linebacker Monday.
"All the way across the board with their blitz packages, they have a mix of talent, everyone can rush and they're very effective," says Bengals right guard Kevin Zeitler.
Cincinnati Bengals host Cleveland Browns in week 9 of the regular season.
Zeitler, Watt's Wisconsin teammate who grew up near him, didn't know him until college. They work out at the same gym in the offseason, but no longer at the same time and while they are well acquainted with each other's body of work, they are now more like two ships in the night saluting each other. And with Watt lining up the majority of the time on the Bengals' right side in the base defense, they'll salute a few times.
"There's no question it's a lot of hard work and there has been no drop off," Zeitler says. "He's a relentless player and the way he moves so effortlessly for his size, he can create a lot of problems for anyone."
Bengals left guard Clint Boling, also a 2011 rookie, has watched Watt help evolve his group into a major force.
"He's quick with unbelievable moves for a guy his size," Boling says. "They're a physical group and we've seen a lot of those kinds of big, physical fronts like that in Kansas City, Seattle, and Pittsburgh. This is definitely a game we feel like we have to run the ball well and stay out of third-and-long."
Although Winston may or may not end up playing Watt, he's the only guy here that has played with him so he's got an idea what makes him tick and it's not so much about being a hellacious physical specimen seemingly popping out of some Sci Fi lab. There is a lot of want-to in the beaker, too.
"When he first got there, you saw it right away," Winston says of Watt's rookie training camp. "You're saying, 'Who the hell is this guy?' You knew he was going to be a very good player. Who would say a Hall-of-Famer? But very good, and, of course, he's really taken off.
"Let's face it. You see guys block him early and they don't want to match his effort," Winston says. "I think sometimes that's where they get beat. You have to play him for 60 minutes. You can't get in his face and do everything right and then all of a sudden you're sucking air. You have to do it over and over again."
Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Cleveland Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals game 11/06/2015
Winston has a hard time explaining Watt's success to people because he believes much of it is intangibles.
"You can see his priority list. Football is at the top and it shows," Winston says. "There are a handful of guys as talented as J.J. J.J. is a seriously talented guy by himself, but there are guys with similar physical abilities, but they don't have that motor. That makes him uncommon."
Winston, who played against Watt in '13 in the Cardinals' victory over Houston, has the same kind of advice the Bengals appeared to use against Watt last season. Newhouse had success in a two-point stance and he got help from tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Ryan Hewitt, although Alexander insists the Bengals won't get away from their preferred style of one-on-one blocking. And with tight end Tyler Eifert leading the NFL with nine TD catches in place of Gresham, how much is he going to help?
"We didn't put five guys on him. We put one guy on him. We played the way we play. We put one guy on him," Alexander says. "A couple plays we put two guys on him. But 95 percent of the game we put one guy on him. That's how we play."
Winston says no matter how many or who, they have to play the textbook.
"With Watt, the big thing is he can beat you with everything and that's the hard part," Winston says. "Most guys in the league, if you shut them down doing one thing, it's hard to beat you consistently. But with him, you have to always know where you can funnel him and you always have to know where your help is. And you have to play hard and fundamentally sound."
And, unfortunately, those game-changing plays like the out-of-thin-air pick usually can't be combated.
"It's one of those deals, what do you do?" Winston says. "Go to the next play. A lot of guys get in trouble when he beats them once and it turns into two or three times. If he gets you once, hey, he's a great player, go back there and get the next one. You have to limit it."