Much of the national interest in Sunday's Vikings-Texans game will be centered on Adrian Peterson's q uest for the all-time single-season rushing record. However, there is another record at stake.
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt is chasing down the all-time single season sack record of 22.5 held by Michael Strahan of the Giants – the same record Jared Allen fell short of by a half-sack last season. Watt has emerged as one of the pre-eminent pass rushers in the league and, in the Houston 3-4 defense, he is given the latitude to move from one side of the line to the other, creating problems across the offensive line for both tackles and guards.
Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt knows he's in for a long day against the Texans pass rush specialist, because he needs to be accounted for on every play and special attention will be paid to him when he's on the move.
"He definitely can cause some problems," Loadholt said. "We're preparing for him and will have to trust in our schemes and technique. He is fast and strong. It's going to be a situation that, wherever he lines up, you have to be aware of him and trust that the scheme we have in place will work on him. You can't make mistakes with him or he'll make you pay for it."
Shutting Watt down early will be a key. He is a notorious fast starter and guard Brandon Fusco observed through film study that his biggest games seem to come when he dictates the pace early. Given his rare skill set, Fusco believes the Vikings will need to maul Watt and not allow him to do what he does best.
"He does a great job of reading what the offensive linemen are going to do," Fusco said. "We've got to get after him at the line and slow him down and not let him get any momentum. His history is to get off to strong starts early in games. He is very quick and we have to do what we do best – get after him, play physical and not allow him to dictate the pace of what we do."
Watt has the size and strength to be a classic bull rusher who achieves success by pushing offensive linemen back into the pocket and muscling his way to the quarterback. But, when you take a closer look at Watt, you see his game is based more on speed and switching up his pass rush moves in order to make offensive linemen play guessing games – and, in the process, often come off looking foolish.
"He's such a big guy, so you would think he's a bull rusher, but he's not," Fusco said. "He's much more of a finesse guy who uses speed and technique. You have to be patient. If you give him a lean, he's going to give you a swim move or a club and make you look stupid. We have to switch it up on him to slow him up. He's probably the best defensive end we've faced all year, so we have to stop him."
That is a problem that many offensive linemen have fallen into. Because of his movement from side to side of the Houston defense and his ability to change up his pass rush from play to play, it's logical for offensive linemen to try to predict what he's going to do, but too often the results aren't good for the O-lineman in question.
"You never want to guess, especially in the trenches," Loadholt said. "The NFL isn't a guessing game. If you start trying to anticipate what he's going to do, if he doesn't do exactly what you think he will, you come off looking bad and he ends up making plays. You have to trust in your technique, because it's going to be an all-day affair out there."
Loadholt admits that, while every NFL team has good pass rushers, few have the ability and motor that Watt brings to the table. He can do it all and the Vikings offensive line will have to be prepared for a long day, whether it's trying to open running lanes for Peterson or protecting newlywed Christian Ponder.
"He has good lateral quickness, but he can run you over as well," Loadholt said. "He doesn't have all those sacks for no reason. He's a total package and it shows in his number. You have to bring your ‘A' game the entire game or he will make you look bad."
Watt's skill set is pronounced. He not only is the league's most prolific sacker this year, he has gained the nickname J.J. Swatt by the local Houston media for his uncanny ability to get into passing lanes and bat down passes. As a result, the Vikings game plan is to get into his body and not let him go until passes are in the air.
"Any time you play a D-lineman who likes to bat balls down, you have to keep your hands on him," Loadholt said. "He has great timing, but needs to separate from you to jump and bat down passes. That's when you have to keep your hands on him and not let him disengage from you. You have to make him feel, know you're there and give him something to think about before he tries to jump."
Most of the attention Sunday when the Vikings offense is on the field will be how the Texans attack Peterson. But when all is said and done, the major factor in the success or lack of it for the Vikings offense may not be centered on Peterson, but on Watt. If he has a big day, it may be a long afternoon for the Vikings deep in the heart of Texas.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings: Watt can ‘make you look stupid'
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