NFL

NFL: How the Houston Texans Can Survive J.J. Watt’s Brutal Injury

While every NFL team has a handful of captains, there’s usually one emotional leader in the locker room. For the Houston Texans, that man is J.J. Watt. That status makes his season-ending injury—which he suffered on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders—extra painful.

The Texans, however, are currently holding onto the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. Can they stay there, even with Watt on the sidelines?

J.J. Watt’s injury history

After a false start to his college career, which came as a tight end at Central Michigan, J.J. Watt emerged as a dominant defensive player. He posted two strong seasons with the University of Wisconsin before making the jump to the pros; the Houston Texans selected Watt 11th overall in the 2011 NFL draft.

While Watt battled through smaller injuries at the start of his pro career, his body started to break down. The defensive end missed most of the 2016 season with back issues; he returned the following year but promptly fractured his leg.

After having offseason knee surgery to address a nagging knee problem, Watt appeared in every game this season. On Sunday, however, he tore his pectoral muscle making a tackle; once again, the defensive end’s season will be cut short by a major injury.

The Texans defense this season

The Texans’ primary concern will obviously be replacing J.J. Watt’s presence on defense. While the end only has four sacks this season, he was leading the NFL in quarterback hits before his injury.

Even with Watt on the field, however, Houston has struggled defensively. They’re giving up an average of 362 yards per game, making them the 20th ranked unit in the NFL. Most of that yardage comes in the passing game, where the Texans defense surrenders over 275 yards each week. It’s hard to imagine those numbers not getting worse, especially without Watt crashing into the backfield and forcing opposing quarterbacks out of the pocket.

This is the sort of scenario when the Texans could have relied on Jadeveon Clowney to carry the defensive load; instead, they’ll have to try to tread water on defense for the rest of the year.

Opening up the Houston offense

Barring a trade and a remarkable turnaround, the Houston Texans defense isn’t going to do much this season. That means the franchise’s hopes will fall squarely on Deshaun Watson and his offense.

On Sunday, for example, the Texans defense struggled, allowing the Oakland Raiders to rack up almost 400 yards of total offense. Thankfully for Houston, Watson was equal to the task, throwing for 279 yards and running for 46 more. His mobility gave the Raiders fits and showed up on the game-winning touchdown when the quarterback escaped what looked like a sure sack to find Darren Fells in the endzone.

“You see Michael Jordan, you see some of the great athletics plays in any sport, you’ve got to tip your hat to the guy,” Oakland head coach John Gruden said after the game. “We had him three times, and then he makes an unbelievable throw.”

While it’s not always easy for football coaches to relinquish a bit of control, that’s what Bill O’Brien and the Texans will have to do for the rest of this year. The defense was already weak with J.J. Watt on the field; at this point, just give Deshaun Watson the ball and let him score one more time than the opposition.