J.J. Watt returned a line-of-scrimmage interception for a touchdown in the 2011 playoffs. (AP)
It's common practice for quarterback coaches to use brooms in practice to simulate defensive pressure for their quarterbacks on non-contact days, but as the New England Patriots prepare for their "Monday Night Football" tussle with the Houston Texans, Pats head coach Bill Belichick is using another implement to simulate Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt's unreal ability to bat passes at the line of scrimmage.
"I know coach Belichick likes to bring guys with racquetball paddles and stick those up in the air," Tom Brady told the Boston Globe before Wednesday's practice. "I'm sure there will be a whole bunch this week, which doesn't always make me very happy.
"That's probably a good way to prepare for it -- it's like throwing over this wall," Brady continued, pointing to the backdrop behind him. "It's hard ... you've just got to try to find an area."
Easier said than done. This season, Watt has an incredible 15 batted passes, and when you add that to his 16 1/2 sacks (second in the NFL to San Francisco's Aldon Smith), there's no more malevolent force in the NFL when it comes to messing up what quarterbacks are trying to do.
Belichick was typically succinct when asked about Brady's biggest threat this week.
"He's the most disruptive player in the league, certainly that we've seen. That looks like the Defensive Player of the Year to me."
Right now, Watt's in the conversation for NFL Most Valuable Player, and if the Texans approach the Super Bowl this season, it will be tough to argue against him. Watt comes at quarterbacks from many different angles -- he can play inside in nickel and dime defensive schemes, and flare to the outside when the Texans run their base 5-2 fronts. No matter where he starts, Watt generally finishes where he wants to.
Watt discussed his methodology with ESPN Radio on Wednesday morning.
"As I pass rush, I always have my eyes on the quarterback, no matter what. Pretty early in your pass rush, you know whether or not you're going to get there. You have to win pretty clean in this league to get a sack, so early in my pass rush I can tell if I'm going to get there or not. You can kind of get a feel for if it's going to be a three-step drop or a five-step drop, so all those things play a factor.
"The three-step drops are obviously the easier ones to bat down. When I get kind of stoned at the line of scrimmage, and I see the quarterback take his front hand off the ball and go to cock his arm back, that's when I put my hands up, jump and try to get in his way. A lot of times I'll miss, but the times I get lucky are obviously big plays in the game. We're very happy to have those, and everyone else is joining in on it."
ESPN's Jon Gruden, who will be calling the game with Mike Tirico from Gillette Stadium, was his typically effusive self when asked about Watt.
"He's just unblockable," Gruden said of Watt in a Wednesday media release. "His stamina is incredible. He's a tremendous athlete. A lot of people think he's just a high-effort guy. He's a rare athlete. He can get off the blocks and close. He can run over you. He has the elusiveness to run you down and change directions. He's instinctive. He has the ability to reject passes when he knows he's not going to get there, or when you're going to throw the quick gain. He bats balls and he bats quarterbacks around. He's an MVP candidate. There's no question."
And as we detailed earlier this season, Watt has the pure strength off the line to completely shut down an opponent's running game. The sacks and bats are flashy, but don't be fooled -- Watt is an elite every-down player who can blast through whatever you put in front of him. His closing speed, especially when tasked to stop speed backs like Tennessee's Chris Johnson, is unusual for a man standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 295 pounds.
Paddles might work to simulate one aspects of Watt's game, but to get the full effect, Brady might want to find a more advanced piece of machinery. We'd suggest something like this:
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