HOUSTON -- There was need to sugarcoat the harsh reality of what moving forward without All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt will mean for the Texans, both in the short term with their first AFC South game on tap and from the extended view of maintaining their status as a postseason hopeful buoyed by their stout defense.
The Texans (2-1) placed Watt on injured reserve Wednesday, a move necessitated by Watt reaggravating the back injury that resulted in surgery in July and his missing the entire preseason. Watt returned in time for the season opener against the Chicago Bears, but with three relatively modest performances (eight tackles, five quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks) came the stark reality that Watt just wasn't himself.
"Going on IR will give J.J. all the time that he needs to make sure he's 100 percent healthy and back to being himself the next time he steps on the football field," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "This decision made by the organization is in the best interest of J.J.'s long-term health and that's what is most important to us, this organization and this team, is obviously the health of the player."
Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, is the fulcrum of the defense. But the Texans have done a fine job cultivating pass-rushing talent to complement Watt, with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and linebacker Whitney Mercilus having combined for three sacks and seven quarterback hits. The Texans are tied for third in the NFL in sacks (10), first in net passing yards allowed (151.3), third in opponent's third-down conversion rate (26.8) and fifth in net yards allowed (277).
The Texans have produced these impressive numbers without Watt resembling the dominant form of seasons past, so it bodes well that even without the best defensive player in the league, a collapse isn't imminent. The initial challenge facing the Texans is simply adjusting to not having Watt available for the first time ever.
"When you have that kind of ability and that kind of playmaking, it's hard to replace with one guy," Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "So we're going to ask all the guys on defense to pick it up, to put a little bit extra in it and see if we can gain some of those plays that J.J. used to make. That's what we have to do.
"I think that, defensively, we always talk to the guys about being a team, being a unit. It's not just one guy, it's everybody doing their job and fitting, and that makes the defense really good. Then when you have a player like J.J., that also makes the defense really good. We're going to try to ask everybody else to tighten their belts and then go play the best game that they've played."
The Texans were coy about the potential return of inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who suffered a knee injury on the first series of the opener yet was back at practice. Cushing didn't commit to playing against the Titans (1-2) on Sunday, but a healthy Cushing would to a slight degree offset the absence of Watt, at least the initial shock.
The Titans were careful not to overplay how a Watt-less Texans defense influences their preparation.
Tennessee has scuffled offensively, particularly in the passing game, ranking 24th in yards at 229.3 per game. Quarterback Marcus Mariota has thrown four interceptions and has fumbled three times. And while the Titans have been sound running the ball behind DeMarco Murray (245 yards on just 41 attempts), they haven't struck the balance necessary to reach full throttle.
Tennessee appears poised to welcome back receiver Kendall Wright, who has yet to play in the preseason or regular season after suffering a hamstring injury in training camp. Wright offers the promise of another viable target for Mariota, should the Titans offer Mariota the protection required to revive the modest passing attack.
How effectively the Texans pressure Mariota without Watt is a mystery. There was no topic more pressing as both teams discussed what lay ahead.
"To lose someone like that of his caliber, it's tough for them," Mariota said. "You never want to see anybody go down. Truly you just wish the best for him. For us, we've just got to continue to game plan, focus on what we can control and do our best to execute whatever is asked of us."