HOUSTON – Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was simply trying to catch passes with his one good arm a few days after dislocating his left elbow early in training camp.
He vowed to be back by opening day. He not only returned, but he made a major impact, deflecting two passes that produced interceptions in the Texans' 30-10 win over Miami. Watt also had 1 1/2 sacks and didn't miss a beat after missing most of his team's preseason workouts.
"He's been exceptional," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "We're not going to change anything he does."
The Texans took the 6-foot-5, 288-pound Watt with the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Wisconsin. He proved to be a quick study and a perfect fit for Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense, starting every game and finishing the regular season with 5 1/2 sacks and two fumble recoveries.
He also produced the Texans' highlight of the year, making a leaping interception on an Andy Dalton pass and returning it 29 yards for a touchdown in the franchise's first playoff game.
Phillips has been either a defensive coordinator or a head coach in the NFL since 1981 and he's worked with some of the top pass rushers in history, including Bruce Smith and Reggie White. If Watt stays healthy, Phillips can envision a similar ceiling for Watt, too.
"He's going to be a bust," Phillips said during training camp. "Not a first-round bust, but a bust in the Hall of Fame. The only players I've seen that can do what he can do, with his intensity, can be found in Canton."
The Texans (1-0) play at Jacksonville (0-1) on Sunday.
Watt was also a disruptive force when Houston played in Jacksonville last year, sacking Blaine Gabbert twice and deflecting a pass in a 20-13 Texans' victory. First-year Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey was Atlanta's offensive coordinator in 2011 and studied Watt when the Falcons played in Houston on Dec. 4.
"I love his motor," Mularkey said. "You can do a lot of things when you play with that relentless-type mindset. You have two things you're in complete control over — your effort and your physical play. And he's talented. So all that together makes him a tough guy to block."
Mularkey, a former NFL tight end, has a simple plan for his offensive linemen to follow to keep Watt from swatting any passes on Sunday.
"You've got to punch his chest in," Mularkey said. "That's the response and that's what you'd like to have happen."
Watt is already accustomed to the tactics.
"Sometimes you get hit in the stomach, sometimes you get hit in the chest," he said. "It hurts, but that's part of the job. We're not in it for a pillow fight, so I understand I might get hit sometimes."
Watt hurt his elbow in the first week of training camp. Trainers popped it back into place, but Watt was sidelined almost three weeks. He only had a handful of practices before Sunday's opener, but the lack of work didn't faze him any more than the brace on his elbow did.
"Certain guys are football players," said linebacker Brian Cushing, who caught one of Watt's deflected passes on Sunday. "It doesn't really matter how much time they miss."
Watt joked after Sunday's game that he developed his pass-swatting skills by playing volleyball twice a week at a YMCA. At Wisconsin, he swatted 14 passes and intercepted a pass in his final two seasons.
"When you know you're not going to get to the quarterback, you watch his eyes, you watch his arm," Watt said. "You see when he's about to cock his arm, and that's when you put your hands up."
The best part of tipping a pass, Watt said, may be the demoralizing impact it has opposing quarterbacks.
"It's something that really, I feel, frustrates the offense, and that's a big deal," he said. "He thinks he has a receiver open, the receiver thinks he's open and all of a sudden, you block a pass and the play is over. It's a big play for us."
Notes: RB Arian Foster left practice early with an illness, but Kubiak expects him to play on Sunday. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph became sick in the second half of Sunday's game, and Kubiak says "we've got something a little bit going on with our team." ... Kubiak said Cushing is still dealing with soreness in his ribs, and took another hit there on Sunday. "It's just that time of year," Kubiak said. "Everybody's got something going on."