Houston Texans linebacker J.J. Watt has emerged as one of the decade's most dominant NFL defensive players. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year two years ago when he recorded a career-high 20.5 sacks. He's regarded as the frontrunner to win it again this year with 16.5 sacks and five touchdowns, including three touchdown catches as a red-zone tight end along with an interception return for a touchdown and a fumble return for a score.
The first time Ravens offensive tackle Rick Wagner was tasked with blocking J.J. Watt was on the University of Wisconsin practice field when Wagner was an underclassman walk-on. A converted tight end still adding bulk, Wagner was determined to not be overwhelmed by Watt's raw power and speed.
"I think it was a tie," Wagner said. "He won some, I won some."
Now, Wagner has once again been assigned the hefty job of dealing with the Houston Texans' ultra-formidable defensive end.
One misstep by Wagner, one lean in the wrong direction, one bull rush by Watt that puts him in the face of quarterback Joe Flacco could have major consequences during the Ravens' road game Sunday against the Texans.
"He's a big guy with a smaller guy's speed," Wagner said of the two-time All-Pro pass rusher. "He has a little bit of everything."
Watt has emerged as one of the decade's most dominant NFL defensive players. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year two years ago when he recorded a career-high 20.5 sacks. He's regarded as the frontrunner to win it again this year with 16.5 sacks and five touchdowns, including three touchdown catches as a red-zone tight end along with an interception return for a touchdown and a fumble return for a score.
Although familiarity with Watt is working in his favor, Wagner is realistic about the challenge he's facing against a relentless, 6-foot-5, 290-pound defensive lineman who's come a long way from his days as a Central Michigan transfer who walked on at Wisconsin and developed into a first-round NFL draft pick.
"He's obviously gotten a lot better since college, so I don't know that it will help that much," Wagner said. "After college, his skills took off. It's pretty incredible."
It's not as if Wagner is a slouch. During his first season as a starter as the replacement for Michael Oher, Wagner has been graded the top right tackle in the NFL in pass protection, with just two sacks allowed. It's a testament to Wagner's steady rise from his days as a high school basketball player who, like Watt, eventually earned a scholarship with the Badgers.
"He's a big, athletic guy," Watt said of Wagner during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "He was a good basketball player in high school. He's athletic, can do some things. He's a big guy and he can use his body well. He's a good football player.
"I think playing at Wisconsin, they do a great job of preparing you for the next level. So, I don't think it should be a surprise that he's come in and been able to have success early on in his career."
Wagner is certain to have help against Watt, provided in form of chip-blocking from tight ends and running backs. He'll also have the stout presence of Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda to give him a boost. Plus, Watt tends to line up all over the defensive line, so Wagner might not face him on every play.
"The biggest thing with J.J. is it's not like he's going to line up in one spot," said Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who was Watt's head coach with the Texans until last season, when he was fired. "He plays all over the field. He's very smart. Everybody is going to get their opportunity to try to handle him. He's such a great player."
Blocking Watt will be a collective assignment. He combines leaping ability (37-inch vertical leap), strength (34 bench press reps of 225 pounds), speed (4.81 in the 40-yard dash) and intelligence. Watt scored a 31 on the Wonderlic personnel exam at the 2011 NFL scouting combine.
Watt has grown accustomed to being blocked by multiple players in a single game. Forget double-teams — try triple-teams and the occasional four-player blocking scheme.
"You name it, I've seen it," Watt said with a laugh. "There has been just about every style in the book of trying to do it, whether it's double-teams, triple-teams, sometimes the rare quadruple: tight end chip, running back chip, center.
"There are all sorts of different things. So, I look at it as a challenge and I look at it as an opportunity to go out there and try and find my way through it and try and get back there regardless."
The mention of using four blockers against Watt was dismissed by Wagner.
"We don't need four guys against him," Wagner said.
With two games remaining in the regular season, Watt is a half-sack behind Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston, the NFL co-sack leaders. Watt has recorded 64 tackles with 10 passes defended and three forced fumbles.
"He really does affect the game on every single play," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's got a relentless attitude. He never quits on a play. ... the guy has just had a great year. Obviously, we need him to have a great game on Sunday."
As competitive as Wagner has been against pass rushers, including Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake, Watt is a cut above the standard defensive end.
"Everything is just stepped up a little bit more," Wagner said. "Every step you take is even more important because it starts with your footwork. It's not that much room for error against these elite players."
When the Ravens were routed by the Texans in the regular season two years ago, 43-13, they contained Watt for the most part, as he was limited to two tackles and no sacks with one of his two pass deflections leading to an interception returned for a touchdown.
"He continues to get better," said Ravens tight end Owen Daniels, who played with Watt in Houston. "He's an extremely hard worker, one of the hardest workers I've ever been around, and a very talented player. Everything is kind of clicking for him.
"He's kind of like in the zone a little bit. He's going to be a tough guy to handle, and we'll have a game-plan for him and make sure we are paying attention to him. But he's a game-changer, that's for sure."
Watt's value to the Texans was saluted this year when he was rewarded with a six-year, $100 million contract extension that included $51.876 million guaranteed.
Nervous about the pending financial windfall and determined to show the Texans they were making a wise investment, Watt started lifting weights at 3:30 a.m., hours before signing his blockbuster deal.
"It was obviously a pretty exciting time," Watt said. "I had a lot of thoughts going through my head, really couldn't sleep too much. So, I figured I'd get in there and start earning it early.
"I think that you go out there every single day and try and be the best player you can be. You work extremely hard; you watch a lot of film. You make the necessary sacrifices. You just do whatever you can to be the best."
The Ravens have surrendered 16 sacks this season, the second-lowest total in the NFL. A year ago, Flacco was sacked a career-high 48 times.
Wagner has been a major part of the upgraded pass protection, which is about to face its most difficult test against Watt, who has seven sacks in the past three games.
"We're going to have to attack him in certain ways, he's a good player," Flacco said. "But that's not necessarily on my mind or in my thoughts. I'm going out there to execute the play, and I always have confidence that my guys are going to do the same thing: execute the play and do their job. Other than that, you can't really worry about it."
Although some blockers might be satisfied if Watt simply doesn't wreck the game plan , Wagner made it clear he's looking for more than a stalemate against his former college teammate.