HOUSTON -- For J.J. Watt, rehabbing the back injury that kept him out for most of last season was a slow process, but the hard work is paying off early this season.
The star defensive end said there hasn't been one moment that has told him he's back -- although the body slam he laid on offensive lineman Russell Bodine to end the Houston Texans' Week 2 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals may have been one -- but after two games, he said he finally feels like himself on the field.
“The quickness and the eyes and everything, it’s starting to come back really well, and I think that as each game goes on, it’s going to come back even more and more,” Watt said. “Obviously, there’s a couple plays I would like to finish a little bit better, but I think that overall I’m really starting to feel good out there and enjoying it.”
He added: "Especially the last game on Thursday night [Sept. 14], I felt like myself."
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who aggravated his back nearly a year ago in the Texans’ Week 3 loss to the New England Patriots, spent most of last season on injured reserve, finally returning for the Texans’ offseason program in April. The Texans’ Week 1 loss was his first real game since his September back surgery.
“He hadn’t played since September of last year,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “It’s not like you can just snap a finger and you’re just back into the way you were, but with a player like him, it’s clear that he’s getting back to where he was. I mean, you can see the improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, and I’m sure you’ll see improvement from Week 2 to Week 3.
“He’s a great player. He hasn’t lost a step at all. It’s just a matter of having not played football with pads on and a helmet on and taking on blocks and playing 10 plays in a row. It’s a whole lot different than even practice, and it’s definitely different than conditioning and working out in the weight room and running on the field. So I think you’ll see him get better and better.”
On Sunday, Watt and the Texans will return to New England, where he played his last regular-season game in 2016. But he said his focus is elsewhere.
“I honestly hadn’t thought about [that]. It doesn’t really mean anything to me," Watt said. "I’m so far beyond all that stuff and I’m so far beyond the injury and the comeback and everything. I’m just playing football now. I’m just enjoying it and loving it and having fun. I just enjoy being an athlete again and not having to worry about any of that.”
Through two games, Watt doesn’t have a sack, but defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel pointed out how effective Watt has been, especially against the Bengals.
“I think that anytime you look at guys that have sack numbers, it’s, ‘When are you getting sacks?’ There’s a lot that goes into it other than that,” Vrabel said. “There’s a lot of times where [Bengals QB Andy] Dalton had two-and-a-half seconds to throw and he’s launching it out of bounds and we win.
“That’s not a sack, but to me -- you look at the last play of the game, nobody got a sack, but [Dalton] also dropped back and threw it in about two seconds and threw it out of bounds. So, to me, that was just as good a pass rush as anything else that we could possibly get.”
Just having Watt on the field has made a difference for his teammates. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus called Watt one of the greatest defensive players of all time and said the veteran takes a lot of attention away from his defensive teammates.
“J.J.’s presence -- a lot of people focus their blocking on J.J. [and] that opens it up for other people,” O’Brien said. “When they don’t and he’s one-on-one, many, many times, like you said, he forces quarterbacks out of the pocket, doesn’t matter who it is. It’s tough to block him one-on-one. That’s why when they focus their attention on him, it opens it up for other guys.”
And although Watt said he feels good on the field, he knows he still has some work to do to get to where he wants to be.
“I would like to finish plays better, myself,” Watt said. “There were a couple TFLs [tackles for loss] in the last game that I would like to finish a little bit better. Obviously, you want to get some sacks, but it’s just fine-tuning my game. But I would say finishing plays and making sure I finish them. Getting in the backfield is good [but] I want to finish those tackles and really punctuate the play.”
HOUSTON -- With 2016 first-round pick Will Fuller out with a broken collarbone, through two games opposing teams have been able to focus even more and double-team Houston Texans star receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
"I think everyone in the league knows we're going to throw the ball to Hopkins," coach Bill O'Brien said.
After Texans legend Andre Johnson left after the 2014 season, Hopkins became Houston's No. 1 receiver, and he proved that the next season, catching 111 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Texans rewarded him for that success last month, signing him to a five-year, $81 million extension, with $49 million guaranteed.
Through two games, Hopkins has gotten a lot of attention from the opposing teams. In the Texans' Week 2 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals, through three quarters, Hopkins had only seven targets and just three catches for 36 yards -- most coming from a 25-yard completion in the second quarter. But with the game on the line, rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson tried to find Hopkins, and he finished with seven catches for 73 yards.
"I knew he was going to keep coming to me," Hopkins said. "I know I'm a playmaker on this team, I know they're going to call my number.
"[I'm] just trying to get open, because I know there are probably going to be at least four eyes on me, more than likely, so just trusting my quarterback to get me the ball, and trying to get open the best I can."
Teams have also started to cover him differently because of his physical style of play and ability to make a game-changing catch. So far this season opposing cornerbacks have had five defensive pass interference penalties called, including one on the Texans' game-sealing series in Week 2, when Watson led the Texans on a 13-play, 66-yard drive for a field goal to put Houston up 13-9 and eat up 6:24 of clock.
"[Defensive backs] know sometimes they'd rather take a penalty than a touchdown or a big play, which is smart," Hopkins said. "If I was playing DB and I knew I could give up a touchdown ... in the league, penalties, the spot of the foul is at the spot of the foul, it's not beyond, so sometimes it's smart for DBs to take the penalty instead of a bigger play.
"Penalties are just as big as first-down catches, so extend the play, do my job as much as I can help."
The Texans will face a tougher test in Week 3 against the New England Patriots, but Hopkins said his chemistry and relationship with Watson has continued to get better, and he is hopeful that means they can connect on the field even more.
"It's getting better and better everyday," Hopkins said. "At practice, I've seen the difference from when we first started throwing together to yesterday. We're growing, we're getting to know each other, and it's getting better."
HOUSTON -- When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney looks back at his team's national championship victory over Alabama in January, QB Deshaun Watson's ability to stay calm stands out.
Watson’s confidence is nothing new to Swinney, who saw it time and time again at Clemson. Swinney points to Clemson’s final drive in the national championship game against Alabama. With 2 minutes and 7 seconds left, Alabama scored to take a 31-28 lead.
“He didn’t flinch,” Swinney said. “Two minutes to go, and he gathers his teammates up and we’re fixing to go out there, and he says, 'Let’s go be legendary, boys.’
“And just as cool, calm, just like, no big deal. And that’s how he executed the drive.”
Not much has changed in the nine months since that championship game, as Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien saw before Watson played in Week 1.
“I asked him, ‘Are you nervous?’ He goes, ‘No, I don’t get nervous.’ And I see that,” said O'Brien.
The transition from college to the NFL is always challenging, especially for a rookie quarterback, but Watson’s experience in big ACC contests and two national championship games has given him the confidence to be ready to take on the Super Bowl champion Patriots in a tough road environment.
In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Watson started seven games overall against pregame top-10 opponents, the most in the FBS. In those seven starts, he was 6-1, completing 61 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a Total QBR of 86.9.
“Anybody that’s played in the type of games that he’s had to play in -- look, it’s different, obviously. It’s the National Football League. But he’s played in some national championship games. He’s played in big games relative to the ACC in college,” O’Brien said. “Just the environment, dealing with the noise, dealing with the big-game environment, I think that’s important.”
'He never changes'
The first time O’Brien met Watson, the coach was struck by the quarterback's poise. At the NFL scouting combine in March, Watson sat down in a small hotel room surrounded by O’Brien, general manager Rick Smith and other members of the Texans organization who play a part in the draft evaluation process.
“It’s a tough environment, and I thought he handled himself really well,” O’Brien said. “I’ve never seen a change in his personality, if that makes sense. He’s the same guy every day. He’s calm, he’s got a really good demeanor about him.
“But he never changes. He’s flatlined. He’s not up and down. What you see every day is what you see out on the field.”
Watson said he’s always “been that type of person,” and credits his confidence not only to the success he’s had but to the way he was raised by his mom.
“My mom [made] sure that we knew right from [wrong] and how to handle different situations,” Watson said. “Then, just my experiences throughout middle school, high school and college that kind of built me up to this point now.”
Watson’s confidence is apparent on and off the field, such as in the way he dresses -- before his first NFL start on Thursday night in Cincinnati, Watson walked into Paul Brown Stadium wearing a tuxedo, a bow tie and black Christian Louboutin shoes. “I thought it was pretty fresh,” nose tackle D.J. Reader said. “He was looking fancy out there.”
Then there's the way he dances on the field before practice. After he ran for a touchdown in a Texans preseason game against the Patriots, he broke out the Milly Rock dance, saying his teammates thought it was “pretty swaggy and pretty fun to do.”
“He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s got that swagger that some quarterbacks have,” running back Lamar Miller said. “And that’s what you need for your quarterback.”
Reader said he and other players appreciate that attitude, and it rubs off on those around him.
“He just brings this confidence that you really can’t explain,” Swinney said. “But when you’re around him, and I think it’s that way around all great ones, they’re magnetic, and there’s a confidence that oozes out of them that gets into everybody else.
"And all of a sudden you have this comfort that, man, I’m getting to play with this guy. You just know you’ve got a chance to win every time you step out on the field.”
Calm under pressure
Sunday’s game against the Patriots (1-1) is not close to a national championship game, but a big game nonetheless for the Texans (1-1). Houston has lost six straight games to the Patriots, including a divisional-round playoff loss in January.
... when you're around him, and I think it's that way around all great ones, they're magnetic, and there's a confidence that oozes out of them that gets into everybody else.
- Dabo Swinney on Deshaun Watson
Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said he saw Watson improve in-game in the Texans' Week 2 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. The most impressive part of Watson’s performance, Ryan said, was the way he was able to communicate calmly before and during the game.
“He’s able to just really communicate with you, just what he’s thinking, what he expects from a defense based on what we’ve told him going into it, how he feels he would react to certain plays,” Ryan said. “There’s a lot of calm communication coming from the guy, and it was both pregame and, like I said, more importantly, and more impressively, it was in between series as the game’s going on.
“Whether it was a good series or not, he was able to come over and explain what he saw, what happened, and be able to look at the pictures and get it right, and come up with a solution when there were problems moving forward. So I just thought those were some examples of him being calm all the way through.”
That skill isn't necessarily typical for a rookie, but Ryan said he wasn’t surprised at all.
“Based on how [Watson] has acted since he’s shown here after the draft until now, [his ability to stay calm] didn’t shock me. And he’s been on huge stages, as we know," Ryan said. "He’s been in the biggest situations you can be in as a college player, which obviously has prepared him. So it didn’t shock me, but it’s been impressive to me since the time he got here.”
HOUSTON -- Among the 209,426 people who donated to Texans defensive end J.J. Watt's Houston Relief Flood Fund to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey were New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
Brady donated $100,000 and Belichick contributed $50,000.
"I think everybody was pretty touched by what happened," Brady said Wednesday. "I've had a lot of friends down there. I don't know; I'd rather not comment too much, other than a lot of people need a lot of help."
Watt closed the fundraiser on Friday after raising more than $37 million.
"It's incredibl[y] kind gestures," Watt said of what the Brady and Belichick contributed. "Just goes to show what type of people they are. Despite everything, playing a game against each other, having practice against each other, being in the same [conference] and things like that. For them to step up at a time like that and just help their fellow human is pretty special and I think it speaks volumes to their character.
"I'm very appreciative of that obviously, and I think the way both of them went about it as well, just kind of quietly behind the scenes. I don't think they even meant for it to get out, so good people. Much appreciated for sure."
The Patriots have won the last six times the team have played, including twice last season -- a 27-0 victory in Week 3 while starting third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett and 34-16 in the divisional round of the playoffs to end the Texans' season. Although the teams have played frequently -- including a joint practice and preseason game this season -- O'Brien balked at the idea that seeing the Patriots so often helps when preparing to play them this season.
"[It helps] zero," O'Brien said. "I mean, we haven't beaten them, so it doesn't really help too much."
Changing that starts with containing quarterback Tom Brady.
"He's a great quarterback," outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus said. "He's very smart about the game, understands what schemes that other teams are trying to do against him. He's done a great job of that. Obviously he's been playing for so long and that's why they call him the GOAT, no doubt."
In the playoff loss in January, the Texans had some success against him, holding him to 18-of-38 for 287 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Brady had only thrown two interceptions in 12 regular-season games.
"Obviously we'll try to do some of the things that we did last year, but obviously they're expecting it," Mercilus said.
Nose tackle D.J. Reader said it's hard to stop Brady but it's important to put pressure on him and force him out of the pocket.
"He doesn't really move around a lot," Reader said. "You go out there, you put pressure on him and -- he’s going to make plays. That's just him. That's the nature of playing against Tom Brady, but you just go out there and you rush hard and play good defense, play tight coverage and make everything tough on him."
The Texans saw what Brady did in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints' defense, throwing for 477 yards and three touchdowns, including 177 yards in the first quarter. They know it will be a big challenge to win on the road while stopping Brady and his offense.
"It's a big challenge," O'Brien said. "Obviously, the Patriots played really well yesterday. It's a road environment. We've got to be able to go up there and handle the road environment. Obviously, they don't lose too often at home.
"[They’ve] got a great team. But look, we came back and played better the other night on a short week. We've got a resilient bunch of guys here and I'm glad that we have a little bit longer week so our guys can get healed up and ready to go. We'll have a good practice week and go up there and play hard."
Houston had two cornerbacks leave with injuries in Thursday night's 13-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph left in the second quarter with a shoulder injury and 2015 first-round pick Kevin Johnson sprained his MCL and is expected to miss four to six weeks.
Johnson started the game alongside Joseph. The Texans were relying on Johnson after they lost top corner A.J. Bouye in free agency this offseason.
In place of Joseph and Johnson, the Texans played recently signed cornerback Marcus Burley and rookie Treston Decoud on Thursday. Cornerback Kareem Jackson led the team with seven tackles and added a sack and forced fumble.
Banks was signed by the Chicago Bears in March but was cut before the season.
He was a second-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. The Bucs traded him to the Lions for a seventh-round pick in November 2016. He was released by the Lions in December.
Strong was placed on waivers by the Houston Texans on Monday.
The Jaguars' depth chart at wide receiver took a hit in Week 1 when No 1. wide receiver Allen Robinson was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns are experienced players who have combined for 281 catches since 2014, but since Robinson's injury, the Jaguars were forced to rely on undrafted rookie Keelan Cole in three-receiver sets.
Strong likely will step into the No. 3 spot, which will take some pressure off Cole.
Strong, a 2015 third-round pick, was suspended for the first game of the season because of his February 2016 arrest for illegal possession of marijuana. Strong was riding in a car driven by Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall, a former teammate at Arizona State, and admitted to having the marijuana without a medical marijuana card.
Strong played in the Texans' Week 2 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals but did not have a target. He played on just 30 percent of the team's offensive snaps.
HOUSTON -- Bill O’Brien knows the challenges of starting a rookie quarterback, but the Houston Texans head coach said he doesn’t feel limited in his playcalling because Deshaun Watson is a first-year starter.
“I don’t feel any limitations,” O’Brien said. "He’s a different quarterback, so I think that it’s relative to what each guy can do, and with Deshaun, he can do some different things.
“Relative to what his skill set is and what he knows and what he can do, I don’t think there’s any limitations.”
In his first start Thursday against the Bengals, Watson didn’t do much in the passing game, but he made his mark on the ground. In the second quarter, Watson scrambled up the middle and then ran down the right sideline, breaking tackles and using a stiff arm before finding the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown. The rookie rushed for 67 yards on five carries, which set the Texans' franchise record for rushing yards by a quarterback, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Watson has used his mobility despite an offensive line that still has work to do in pass protection without veteran left tackle Duane Brown, who is holding out. In the season opener against Jacksonville, the offensive line allowed 10 sacks, including four in the second half with Watson in the game in relief of Tom Savage.
There are a “few specific things” in the offense that change depending on whether Savage or Watson is playing, Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said, but “really, to be honest with you, it’s our offense. We run it, we expect both guys to get in there and execute it. That’s really our philosophy.”
Watson was 15-of-24 passing for 125 yards, without a touchdown or an interception. He said after the game that it will take some time and a lot of reps until he is a complete quarterback, but O’Brien thinks he’s going in the right direction.
“He’ll get the bulk of the first-team reps now,” O’Brien said. “And I think, just based on that alone and his film study and learning from week to week, he’ll get better and better.
“He’s a quick study. He’s a quick learner. He’s going to make his share of mistakes, he’s going to see things that he’s never seen before, seeing them for the first time, and he’ll learn from it. I thought [Thursday] night he really learned during the game, and that was pretty good to see.”
The 2015 third-round pick was suspended for the first game of the season because of his February 2016 arrest for illegal possession of marijuana. Strong was riding in a car driven by Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall, a former teammate at Arizona State, and admitted to having the marijuana without a medical marijuana card.
Strong played in the Texans' Week 2 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals but did not have a target. He played on just 30 percent of the team's offensive snaps.
In three seasons with the team, Strong had 28 catches for 292 yards and three touchdowns (all in his rookie season). The Texans considered releasing the wide receiver before the season during the cut down to the 53-man roster.
After releasing Strong, the Texans have four receivers on their roster: DeAndre Hopkins, 2016 third-round pick Braxton Miller, Will Fuller (broken collarbone) and Bruce Ellington (concussion protocol).
The Texans signed rookie wide receiver Andy Jones on Monday in a corresponding move.
HOUSTON -- At the start of the regular season, Kareem Jackson found himself where he ended last season: as the Houston Texans’ slot cornerback. Now, with starting cornerback Kevin Johnson set to spend his second lengthy spell on the sidelines in as many years, Jackson will find himself in a bigger role on the NFL’s reigning No. 1 defense.
In Thursday’s 13-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson forced a fumble that outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney returned 49 yards to set up the Texans’ first field goal and had the first sack of his eight-year NFL career. He also led the team with seven tackles.
“I thought [Jackson] played one of the best games he’s had since I’ve been here,” head coach Bill O’Brien said. “He did a lot of different things, he blitzed off the edge, got a sack, caused a fumble, had several tackles.
“Just a very smart player, and he’s a very valuable player to our team because he can do so many different things, and he played really well.”
Jackson said he feels he’s “in a good spot physically,” two games into the season. Last year, the veteran missed two games with a hamstring injury, but otherwise was healthy. That’s important given the tough and physical style which he plays.
“That’s one of the aspects of my game that I kind of pride myself on. One of those guys that’ll get in and get dirty, tackle, do whatever I have to do,” Jackson said. “To me, I like being physical, so any time I can come out and be physical and kind of create some turnovers, maybe slow some guys up, I’m all for it.”
Jackson’s play will be even more important after Johnson sprained his MCL on Thursday. He is expected to be out four to six weeks. On Thursday in Cincinnati, despite losing cornerback Johnathan Joseph in the second quarter with a shoulder injury and Johnson later in the game, the Texans held Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to 20-of-35 for 224 yards with no touchdowns.
“It means a lot for us to go out and play the way we’re capable of playing, especially after the way the first game went,” Jackson said. “It’s just about us going out and doing our jobs. All 11 guys all being on the same page and all having the same goals in common. It kind of shows what we can be and the way we can play if we all do it right.”
The Texans’ secondary will face a tougher test on Sunday against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Between the regular-season game, AFC divisional round and a preseason game, the Texans have seen a lot of the Patriots lately. Jackson said it “definitely” helps to go against Brady so often. The O’Brien-led Texans have never won at Gillette Stadium.
“[Brady is] arguably the best to ever play the position,” Jackson said. “He’s done some great things over his career, so any time we can see him, whether it’s preseason [or] practicing against them, it’s definitely going to bring out the best in us as a team. We’ll have to have a great week, and we have to be ready to go.”
From the New England Patriots' thorough bounce-back in the Superdome, to the Denver Broncos' stunning stifling of Ezekiel Elliott, to the Atlanta Falcons' prime-time drubbing of the Green Bay Packers to christen their new stadium, Week 2 of the NFL season hasn't lacked for the dramatic.
What's been the best performance so far this week? What's been the most surprising result? And which teams off to a 2-0 start look most playoff-ready? Vote below:
-- Brendan C. Hall
HOUSTON -- In Thursday night's 13-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Houston Texans' defense looked like the group that finished No. 1 in total defense last season instead of the one that struggled in Week 1.
But that was against a Bengals team that has yet to score a touchdown in two games and has fired its offensive coordinator.
The Texans' D will face a more challenging test on Sunday against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, an offense that torched the New Orleans Saints in Week 2 with 555 total yards, with Brady throwing for 477 yards and three touchdowns.
On Thursday, the Texans held the Bengals to 295 yards of offense and quarterback Andy Dalton to 20-of-35 passing for 224 yards and a Total QBR of 29.1.
“[Week 2] was much more us than the other night," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "Like I said, [Week 1] we were all hyped up, everyone wanted to win the Super Bowl on the first play. And we just needed to settle down and play our football.
"We came out here, we settled down, we played with our technique, we played with our fundamentals. And we just came out and we were physical and tough. And that’s what we want to do."
The Texans held the Bengals to just three field goals, but outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said he knows the defense can be even better.
"We’re still getting into our groove," Clowney said. "It could have been a lot better. ... We’ve got a lot of improving to do as a whole unit.”
In the Texans' Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the defense did not have a sack -- a concerning statistic given the skill they have in their front seven, especially with Watt, Clowney and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus. The team got to Dalton three times, including two sacks from inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney. The Texans also got a turnover when safety Kareem Jackson forced a fumble that was scooped by Clowney and returned 49 yards.
Although Watt did not have a sack, he made his presence known, consistently forcing Dalton out of the pocket and to make difficult throws. If Watt can do the same thing Sunday, it will cause issues for the less mobile Brady.
"There’s going to be growing pains," Watt said. "We’re going to get through it. As long as we all stick together and we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be all right.”