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Texans' J.J. Watt trying to become rare defender to claim NFL MVP honors

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt causes paranoia. "Teams are always trying to run away from him," said teammate and tight end Owen Daniels. "He's a factor in every play he's in there. You have to know where he is on every play."

J.J. Watt causes hyperbole. "The ability he has, is just unseen," said Houston linebacker Bryan Braman. "He is in a different category."

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J.J. Watt celebrates after Houston defeated the Colts on Sunday. (AP)

J.J. Watt causes mathematical hypotheses. "Somebody should see how many yards he caused in losses [Sunday]," said Texans linebacker Connor Barwin. "I bet he had at least 50 yards in losses. At least."

J.J. Watt causes laughter. "[Sunday] it was almost comical, how much he takes over a game," said teammate Barrett Ruud.

J.J. Watt causes fishing stories. "I've seen him catch interceptions in practice, where he bats it down with one hand, catches it with the same hand and runs it back," said Houston nose tackle Earl Mitchell. "All the time."

J.J. Watt causes quiet reflection. "Just great initial movement off the ball," said Colts tackle Jeff Linkenbach. He had to go up against the Texans superstar all day Sunday in Indianapolis' 29-17 loss to Houston, which wrapped up the AFC South for the Texans (12-2). "He has a great counter move. He'll get behind the offensive lineman and then undercut him. It's more his reaction time than anything. He's something special."

J.J. Watt causes conflict. Just ask Eliot Allen, a huge Texans fans who loaded up his truck Sunday morning, drove to Reliant Stadium, and found himself in the uncomfortable position of cheering against Watt. Allen, you see, was Andrew Luck's coach at Stratford High here in Houston. So he had to root against the defensive force he usually backs. "If I could pick players for my own team," Allen texted during the second half. "I'd start with Watt and Luck." Seconds after Allen hit send, Watt sacked Luck.

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Above all, J.J. Watt causes disruption. He disrupts pass plays, run plays, every play. He disrupts thinking, reacting and planning. He disrupts A gaps, B gaps, C gaps and the gaps he creates by physically removing people from his path. And he is disrupting the MVP race, because Watt is only three sacks away from Michael Strahan's all-time single season record (22 ½). If Watt has this kind of game next week against Adrian Peterson and the Vikings, it's going to be damn hard not to vote for him.

Watt does not score touchdowns, but Sunday's win was a pristine example of how a defender can play offense. Watt had two sacks, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble at the Texans' 1-yard line and he forced Luck to throw it away twice – in the first half. He ended the game with 10 tackles, three sacks, the forced fumble, and four tackles for no gain or loss. That's moving the football.

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Andrew Luck is sacked by J.J. Watt in the first half. (Getty Images)

And these plays looked even better in real life than on the stat sheet. There was Watt with a swim move that launched him into the backfield to drag down Colts running back Vick Ballard. There was Watt shoving a Colts blocker two feet backward and then tossing Luck onto his back like a sanitation engineer throwing trash. There was Watt costing the Colts (9-5) a sure touchdown by stripping the ball free of Mewelde Moore's grasp on his own goal line.

Watt wasn't just in the backfield all afternoon; he was deep in the backfield all afternoon. So any momentum Luck could generate was snuffed out by Watt gashing the pocket and forcing the rookie quarterback into third-and-impossible. Houston does not have a strong pass defense, but how strong does it need to be when it's third-and-16? Indianapolis made one third-down conversion all day. One.

Yes, it's hard to vote for a defender as MVP, since a quarterback has the ball on every play. But Watt is clearly affecting the person with the ball on every play. Isn't that just as "valuable"?

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"I feel like a defensive player can make as much of an impact as an offensive player," Watt said after the game. It's hard to argue that on a day like Sunday. Watt took seven points off the board with his forced fumble, and then four more off the board with a huge tackle for loss on the Colts' next drive. That's 11, and the Texans won by 12. And that was only two drives. Never mind all the other times Watt ruined Luck's plans. Luck had 186 yards passing, and a third of that came on one broken play.

Where does Watt's season rank? Just look at Lawrence Taylor's 1986 campaign, which earned him MVP honors. L.T. had 20 ½ sacks, and the Giants lost only two games. This year, Watt has 19 ½ sacks and the Texans have lost only two games. He's currently tied for this year's league lead with San Francisco's Aldon Smith, who plays Sunday night.

"I can't imagine L.T.'s year being better than the year J.J. is having," Ruud said.

There are two truly outstanding aspects to Watt's game:

The first is his ability to do different things to wreck offensive plays. He bats down passes. He uses his agility to juke blockers. He uses brute force to plow through the line. He uses his smarts to read the snap quickly. And he uses those mammoth arms and hands to grab a quarterback and not let go.

The second is his motor. "Every play is like his last," said Houston offensive tackle Duane Brown.

Watt was the 11th overall pick in 2011, but he thinks like an undrafted free agent. He has a tape of fans in Reliant Stadium booing when his name was called by the Texans on draft day. On that same tape, fans are interviewed ripping the pick, except for one guy who predicts Watt will lead them to the Super Bowl.

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"If my dream comes true and we win a Super Bowl here, I want to find that guy," Watt told the Houston Chronicle earlier this season. "And I want to shake that guy's hand [and] say, 'Thank you for believing in me, and you were right.' "

So let the hype begin: Vikings vs. Texans. MVP candidate vs. MVP candidate. All Day vs. J.J. Mall of America vs. Maul of Texas. Peterson might be having too good a season for voters to pass up, especially if he catches Eric Dickerson's all-time mark.

But you can bet J.J. Watt will cause havoc.

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