Stopping Watt key for Bears' offense

DT J.J. Watt (Brett Davis/USP)

For Chicago's offense to click on Sunday, the offensive line must keep Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who leads the league in sacks, out of the backfield.

As most astute football fans know, pressure on the quarterback is a surefire way to disrupt any passing attack. That is especially so with the Bears, who have struggled this season when pass protection has broken down.

Chicago's front five has had issues keeping QB Jay Cutler off his back this year. The Bears are third in the league in sacks allowed (28) and have given up 14 sacks in the past three games. The offense has been able to overcome some of that pressure but against a team like the Houston Texans on Sunday, things could spiral out of control if the offensive line fails to protect.

The Texans are tied for sixth in the NFL in total sacks with 24.0, just one fewer than the Chicago's defense. The main priority is J.J. Watt (6-5, 295), who leads the league in sacks (10.5).

"He's a big guy, you know. He can move. He plays with a lot of passion for the game," said Roberto Garza. "It will be a good challenge for our guys."

To call what a "challenge" is an understatement. The second-year player out of Wisconsin has developed this season into one of the best pass rushers in the league, who uses a variety of moves to beat opposing blockers.

Gabe Carimi knows all about Watt, as the two were teammates collegiately at Wisconsin.

"J.J. is a great player," Carimi said. "I played a lot against him at Wisconsin. He's doing well over there. I'm always happy when a Wisconsin guy is doing well and now I get to block him. He can't do well against us obviously."

Watt played defensive end in Wisconsin's 4-3 system but now rotates between defensive tackle and end in Houston's 3-4 system. It's his versatility that makes him so dangerous, as he can line up anywhere along the line of scrimmage and be disruptive.

"He plays a different position than he did in Wisconsin. They're in a 3-4 so he plays a lot of inside stuff," said Carimi. "That's where he does a lot of his good plays, on the inside. He does line up at defensive end sometimes, five technique, but a lot of times he'll be over [right guard] Lance Louis."

Watt is relentless getting after the quarterback. He finished his rookie season last year with 5.5 sacks but has truly stepped up his game in his sophomore campaign. Yet it's not just his ability as a pass rusher that makes him so dangerous, it's also his penchant for knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage.

"He's a very smart player, so we're able to move him around, do some different things with him, inside, outside, nickel, base, so that's been a big plus," said Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. "He started playing at a really high level last year in the playoffs and it's just continued. He's one of those guys that finds a way to gets his hands on the ball whether it's tipping a ball or getting a fumble and makes a lot of plays that are the difference in winning and losing."

Watt's 10 passes deflected are tied for eighth best in the league and are by far the most for any defensive lineman. When he's unable to penetrate, he slides into passing lanes and uses great timing to stymie pass attempts.

"He did that in college too," said Carimi. "He's a tall guy so he uses that to advantage. He's probably done more now because he's an interior guy. Using his height on the interior is probably getting more batted passes down now."

If Chicago's offense is going to put up enough points on Sunday to beat the Texans, who own the best record in the AFC, the first priority is to keep Watt under wraps.

"We have to be aware of where he's at," Cutler said. "He lines up in a lot of different positions. I think [Texans defensive coordinator] Wade [Phillips] does a great job of moving him around and using his athletic ability to their advantage. We just have to be aware of him up front.

"We've gone against some pass rushers this year, and I thought we've done a better than average job, so hopefully we can continue it with him."

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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