AFC South: Houston Texans

HOUSTON -- Although Texans running back Arian Foster practiced on Wednesday, he reverted back to not practicing the rest of the week.

 The Texans have listed Foster as questionable on their injury report. Coach Bill O'Brien said this week that Foster would be worked out before the game to see if he can go. Remember, the Texans also did those kinds of pre-game workouts with Foster earlier this season and also for Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing. None of those players wound up playing.

Foster suffered a groin injury three weeks ago against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Texans have since had a bye week and then traveled to Cleveland to face the Browns on Nov. 16. Foster did not make that trip.

He's missed two games this season, including Week 3 against the New York Giants with a hamstring injury.
HOUSTON -- J.J. Watt faced a creature bigger than he on Thursday after practice.

A horse named J.J. Watt. He wanted to ride it, and so he did.

The horse was one of the horses used by the Houston Police Department's Mounted Patrol. It, and two other horses, are sponsored by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair's foundation. McNair has owned race horses, too. The other two horses are named Cushing 56, after inside linebacker Brian Cushing, and Texan Star. The horse named J.J. Watt used to be named Sergeant Swatt #99, but he's made things simpler now.

Word is, horse J.J. Watt and horse Cushing love being part of the action. That figures, doesn't it?
HOUSTON -- Houston Texans running back Arian Foster missed Thursday's practice, after practicing Wednesday.

Foster suffered a groin injury on Nov. 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Texans didn't play the following week, and when they returned to prepare for the Cleveland Browns, Foster did not practice all last week. He stayed in Houston rather than making the trip to Cleveland, and was ruled out for Sunday's game on Saturday.

So far this season, Foster has missed two games because of injury. He suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2 against the Oakland Raiders and missed the following game. Though he returned the next week, he wasn't himself. Foster only had eight carries for a total of six yards.

That result could factor into Foster's thinking in his timetable for return. When he is as close as possible to fully healthy, he is a dynamic player. He has rushed for 822 yards this season despite playing in eight games and only having six yards in one of those games. He might consider it worth it to be cautious.

During his Thursday news conference, Texans coach Bill O'Brien repeated that Foster was day-to-day. He added that the Texans will give Foster until game time to make a decision on his playing status. The Texans play the Cincinnati Bengals at home on Sunday.
This weekend, two former LSU teammates will have to fade back into the background to some degree.

Alfred Blue and Jeremy Hill were productive for their NFL teams in the absence of their starting running backs. In a way, they were uniquely suited for it.

"At LSU, the running back room, we were always competitive," Blue said. "We had a lot of great running backs there. ... Running back coach always told us, the hot hand will get the ball. We never really had a starter. If you were the hot hand that week, you were going to get the ball. ... He used to tell us the starter was just the person who starts the game. It doesn't matter who starts the game. It's about who's going to go out there and dominate."

For the Bengals, Hill rushed for 361 yards in the past three games without starter Giovanni Bernard.

For the Texans, Blue rushed for 156 yards on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns while starter Arian Foster nursed a groin injury.

The Texans' quick tempo on Sunday meant they ran a lot of plays with their first-time starter, most of them on the ground. Blue set a franchise record, rushing 36 times in the Texans' 23-7 victory. He also played punt team and kickoff return, which meant he was very, very sore after the game and the next morning. When he started at LSU, he also played on every special teams unit.

"I’m kind of used to it, knowing that the coaches believe that I’m a dominant player on special teams," Blue said. "I just know my role that I might become a starter one week and still have to play on special teams. I prepare myself for that load."

Blue showed a tremendous amount of patience, a nod to his growth since getting to Houston. His stats weren't padded by any huge runs. He had one 21-yard run and two 14-yarders, but the other 107 yards came methodically.

"It's still difficult because at times you just want to lick your chops and cut it and break loose," Blue said. "You just gotta keep telling yourself before the ball, 'Okay, look at the defense. He might do this, he might do this.' Just keep pressing, pressing. You've just gotta keep telling yourself, 'Patience, patience, patience.'"

Patience will be key for him on a bigger scale, too. Foster returned to practice on Wednesday, and if he returns to the field this weekend fully healthy, Blue's carries will drop.

In the story linked above by my colleague Coley Harvey, Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson says Hill has earned more carries even with Bernard's return. I asked the same question on the Texans side of Bill O'Brien.

Has Blue earned more carries even when Foster is healthy?

"Alfred will play," he said. "Alfred will be in there."

Bengals vs. Texans preview

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
video When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: NRG Stadium, Houston TV: CBS

The Cincinnati Bengals hold a special place in Houston Texans' lore. The Texans, who have been around since only 2002, have had some of their most memorable moments against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Actually, the most memorable moment in franchise history was a pick-six by J.J. Watt in the 2011 playoffs that turned the game in Houston's favor. That was the Texans' first ever playoff win. In fact, the Bengals are the only team the Texans have beat in the playoffs, having done it in consecutive years (2011-12).

Less is on the line this time, but the Texans (5-5) still hang onto hope they can weasel their way into the playoffs with a second-half push. They're currently second in the AFC South and only one game behind the Indianapolis Colts.

With some help from the Texans, who beat the Cleveland Browns last week, the Bengals sit atop the AFC North. Theirs is a division so tight the Browns tumbled from first to last with just one loss.

NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Texans reporter Tania Ganguil discuss this week's matchup.

Ganguil: So Coley, Andy Dalton had a bit of a bounce-back game after an atrocious showing against the Browns two weeks ago. Why was he better? And which Dalton do you think we'll see on Sunday in Houston?

Harvey: There are so many reasons why Dalton was dramatically better this past week, Tania. For starters, he got better protection from his offensive line, specifically from his former TCU teammate Marshall Newhouse, who filled in the past two games for starting right tackle Andre Smith. Newhouse still wasn't great by any stretch, but he was better. Along with that, Dalton did a great job of anticipating pressure, even spinning out of danger on his very first play to scramble and pick up 11 yards for a first down. You saw a calmer, more poised quarterback in the pocket Sunday at New Orleans. He just looked rattled out of his mind against Cleveland during that Thursday night game. Dalton's accuracy also was better. He completed 72.7 percent of his passes, boosting his career record to 10-1-1 in games he has had a 70 percent or higher completion percentage. It's tough to say which Dalton we'll see this week. He's notoriously inconsistent and has had a history of playing poorly at NRG Stadium. It all comes down to whether the Bengals can be balanced offensively, and if he can stay upright in the pocket.

I'm sure every week you do these previews our NFL Nation colleagues ask you about Watt. My question about him is this: What can't he do?

Ganguli: We asked that question of Watt's teammates back in Week 2 when he caught his first touchdown pass. They came up with punting. And, uh, Watt's said he's not great at golf. On the football field, it seems there's little he can't do and the Texans are taking advantage of that. He's a guy who would be on the Jugs machine after training camp practices, waiting his turn with receivers. He works on every skill that could possibly be useful as a football player -- not just as a defensive end -- and that shows during games. Watt doesn't get the ball thrown to him every time he's in on an offensive snap, but he has caught touchdown passes on both of his targets this season. That stuff gets the most attention, but defensively Watt is a problem for every offense he faces. Between batted passes, sacks and quarterback hits, Watt has been the most disruptive player in the league since he entered it. The Browns regularly sent two toward him, sometimes more tried to help.

Since you brought him up: How will the Bengals handle Watt?

Glad you asked. This is where having Smith, the aforementioned tackle who has been out with an ankle injury, will be beneficial. Whether Smith plays or not, I'd imagine the Texans will want Watt to get pressure from that side of the line simply because it's the weakest edge. That's not an indictment on Smith. It's just that left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a Pro Bowler who may be having the best season of his career on the other side. Let’s assume Smith returns and plays right tackle. After practicing Wednesday, it appears that will happen. If I’m Watt, I’d expect double- and maybe even an occasional triple-team. Right guard Kevin Zeitler could provide some help, as could a tight end or H-back lined up on the other side of the right tackle. Per my unofficial film study, the Bengals used an extra blocker next to Newhouse 42.1 percent of the time. They'll also regularly have a running back or H-back Ryan Hewitt lined up in the backfield to give a little extra protection to Dalton. Another tactic? To get the ball out. Dalton has done that well this season, ranking second to Peyton Manning in shortest average time in the pocket. While Watt will be tough to slow, the Bengals also know they will have their hands full with a very talented defensive line.

Ryan Mallett looked really good in last Sunday's game, and clearly his teammates followed his lead in the win against the Browns. Is it too soon to anoint him the Texans' future at quarterback? And what more does he need to do to prove the reins are better in his hands instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick's?

Ganguli: Those are very different questions. Mallett showed on Sunday that the reins are better in his hands than Fitzpatrick's. I think we can already say that. Mallett's total QBR ranked fourth in the league on Sunday. The ball came out quicker with him throwing it than it did with Fitzpatrick, and his arm strength and trust in his arm was on display, even though his numbers were better on more intermediate throws. As for the future, Mallett said it himself: Sunday's game was just one. It was his first ever NFL start and his first win. He played well. The Texans planned well. But what we need to see next is what Mallett can do now that teams have film on him and can adjust better to what he does. Throughout their history, the Texans have struggled to find a franchise quarterback. Mallett showed against the Browns he can be that guy. Now it's up to him to show he will be.

Sticking with offense for you: What impact has the loss of Giovani Bernard had on the Bengals' offense? Will we see him this weekend?

Harvey: We'll take the second question first. It's still a little early in the week to say definitively if he'll play, but I have a feeling he'll be back in uniform for the first time in four weeks. With the Bengals taking his rehab slowly, I can't imagine he'll play his regular load, and I can't imagine he'll be taking the pounding up the middle that he had before. The Bengals have been able to absorb Bernard's loss quite well. Rookie Jeremy Hill has been better than advertised, ripping off a pair of 150-yard rushing performances in his absence. It's not far-fetched to make the claim right now that Hill is the best running back the Bengals have. That said, Bernard is the starter, and has ability in the pass-catching game that Hill and others don't. You'll see a heavy dose of Hill on Sunday. But if Bernard does play, it might not be the role Bengals fans are used to.

The personnel in Houston has changed significantly since the last time these teams met, but what, if anything, can carry over for the Texans from their playoff wins against the Bengals in 2011 and 2012? Those losses certainly have had staying power in Cincinnati, as they were the first of three straight postseason games Dalton has lost to start his career.

Ganguli: You're right that things have changed significantly here. The starting quarterback, head coach and both coordinators have changed. Since that 2011 win, the Texans have turned over most of their starting lineup, too. That 2011 win was the one in which Watt really became someone people noticed. It was before spectacular became normal for him and he made a spectacular play with that pick-six I mentioned earlier. I would say his ascent is the carry-over there. The 2012 Texans who faced the Bengals in that wild-card game were a team already declining. The seeds of their 2-14 season could be seen then as they were never even supposed to be in that position -- as the Texans bolted to an 11-1 start, they seemed destined for a first-round bye. By the way, Texans head coach Bill O'Brien would hurt you for this question. There's been a concerted effort from this team to not talk about the past -- especially not last season. They don't want to let those vibes creep back in.

HOUSTON -- Three days after his backup set a franchise record for carries in a game and rushed for 156 yards on those 36 carries, Texans running back Arian Foster returned to practice.

Foster suffered a groin injury against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 2. The Texans did not have a game the following week. Foster did not practice all last week as the Texans prepared for the Browns and missed Sunday's game in Cleveland.

According to the injury report, the only player who didn't practice was Kareem Jackson. Foster, outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (knee), inside linebacker Brian Cushing (knee), inside linebacker Akeem Dent (neck) and cornerback Johnathan Joseph (knee) were listed as limited.

Asked for an update on Foster's condition, Texans coach Bill O'Brien opted for his traditional "day-to-day" designation.

Foster has played in eight of the Texans' 10 games this season, missing their Week 3 contest against the New York Giants. In his eight games, Foster has rushed for 822 yards, ranking third in the NFL behind Dallas running back DeMarco Murray and Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell.
On Sunday, Andre Johnson caught his 982nd NFL pass, lifting him to 10th all-time in career receptions.

In doing so, he tied Randy Moss on the list and will, barring injury, move ahead of him this weekend. He's 18 catches behind Hines Ward, who is ninth, and 42 catches behind Isaac Bruce in eighth.

After the game in Cleveland, Johnson showed his typical deference for those who have come before him.

"I used to wear the clown socks like he wore in college," Johnson said. "It's a tremendous honor."

The thing is, this happens often. Now in this 12th NFL season, Johnson has been eclipsing some of the greatest receivers of all time or at least matching their accomplishments with regularity.

"You never think about stuff like that," Johnson said. "When you come in, you just want to be a good player, play to the best of your ability. To be on the all-time list, that’s big. Like I said, I think it’ll all sink in the day that you hang them cleats up, you look back over your career and see what you’ve been able to accomplish."

He's interacted with a lot of those great receivers over time and received their praise either directly or indirectly. Earlier this season, Jerry Rice heaped praise upon Johnson -- that's special because Rice is the reason Johnson wears the number 80.

"Most of the time when you see them, they talk to you about what you’re doing on the field," Johnson said. "... It’s surprising because you never really know that those guys pay attention to you. A lot of them just tell me they love the way I play, the way I carry myself and approach the games. It’s just big to hear that from people who you’ve looked up to or watched growing up."
HOUSTON -- It was clear watching Sunday's game that the ball came out of Houston Texans quarterback Ryan Mallett's hands quicker than it did for the team's former quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

It turns out, it was quicker than any other quarterback in the league in Week 11.

"He understood the rhythm that we wanted to play," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "He had performed that well in practice. When we continually saw that week-to-week, we knew that he was a guy that when he got into the game, that he would know how we wanted to play. Up-tempo, huddle-tempo, in-between tempo, he has a good grasp on those things."

After seeing the tweet from Pro Football Focus, I dug into some of Mallett's stats in our own database. The quick pace suited him well.

Twenty-two of Mallett's 30 pass attempts left his hands in less than 2.5 seconds. His passer rating on those passes was 123.1 and his Total QBR was 85.1. He completed 77.3 percent of those passes. By contrast, Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer got the ball out that quickly 30 times, but only completed 35.7 percent of those passes.

Both of Mallett's touchdown passes fell within that category.

When the play took longer, Mallett's completion percentage dropped. He completed three of the eight passes he attempted that took 2.5 seconds or longer to be thrown. All three of those completions went for first downs.

The Film Don't Lie: Texans

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
A weekly look at what the Houston Texans must fix:

As the Houston Texans prepare to face the Cincinnati Bengals, they can be pleased that they have started to fix a lot of what ailed them early in the season. There's room for improvement, nonetheless, and we'll take a look at that here.

It's been a while since this has been a tough space to fill. The Texans had a lot of issues offensively and defensively in the first half of their season. They had trouble on third downs, they couldn't get their tight ends involved, they were prone to being buried by avalanches of mistakes and miscues, they gave up plays longer than 30 yards at the highest rate in the NFL both in the running game and the passing game.

Almost all of that improved on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns in a thoroughly dominating 23-7 win by the Texans.

But third-down conversions still plague the Texans. They converted just 7 of 18 third-down chances in Cleveland (39 percent). And while that's slightly better than their season average, it's still below average league-wide. Twice the Texans called runs on third down that came up just 1 yard short each time. Once a fumbled snap turned a third-and-1 into a fourth-and-21. In the third quarter, a holding penalty turned a third-and-2 into a third-and-12 the Texans couldn't convert.

This season, Houston has converted 37.8 percent of its third downs, ranking 24th in the league. It continues to be a part of the game on which the Texans need to improve.

CLEVELAND -- He came off the field looking alternately proud and stoic.

"Made the four years, the wait, worth it," Ryan Mallett said.

Someone finally trusted Mallett to lead a football team, and Mallett rewarded that trust. He helped topple a team that entered the day leading the AFC North. He threw two touchdown passes (one to a tight end!), he challenged the Browns' vaunted secondary deep, he exuded a contagious enthusiasm and confidence in the huddle.

We didn't know who Ryan Mallett the starting NFL quarterback was before the Houston Texans' 23-7 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. There's more we'll learn as he continues to play. But on Sunday afternoon, he proved Texans coach Bill O'Brien's gamble was not much of a gamble at all.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsNot only did Ryan Mallett impress with his arm on Sunday, he was praised for his preparation.
"It was amazing," Texans left tackle Duane Brown said. "He's very knowledgeable with the offense. He has a great idea of what he wants to get accomplished and I think he did that."

Mallett threw 30 passes and completed 20 of them for 211 yards. His one interception must have still gnawed at him after the game because he brought it up unprompted, but it resulted from an outstanding play by Browns cornerback Joe Haden, not from a mental error on Mallett's part.

"His arm is amazing," receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. "The interception he threw across the field, across his body, was an amazing throw."

Undoubtedly, Mallett had help.

The Texans' running game was as fluid as it has ever been, even though running back Arian Foster was out with a groin injury. Alfred Blue started and rushed a franchise record 36 times. He picked up 156 yards, averaging a very respectable 4.3 yards per carry.

The offensive line didn't give up any sacks and played what O'Brien called its best game of the season.

"I got hit like once or twice," Mallett said, after an impressed exhale.

They had spent extra time during the Texans' bye week meeting, reviewing the offense, what they needed to improve and how they could improve it. Mallett's comprehension of O'Brien's system was apparent in those meetings.

"He knows everything," receiver Andre Johnson said.

Said Mallett: "Being in the system for those three years has helped me be at the point where those guys know that I know it, so we can go talk about it, and sometimes it’s without the coaches. Great teams, you gotta meet without coaches to be good. ... That’s just the extra work you have to put in."

And while he didn't like waiting so long for his turn, in hindsight Mallett said he believes that was helpful. For three years in New England he learned behind one of the best quarterbacks to have played the game in Tom Brady, with an organization singularly focused on the task immediately before them.

Mallett channeled that singular focus, and even some of his former coach's words, after the game.

"We're on to Cincinnati, if that sounds familiar," he said, borrowing the phrase Patriots coach Bill Belichick repeated throughout his news conference following a blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Any questions about how big a win it was, or where it ranked for him personally, were met with that stoicism that alternated with pride. Mallett has been dreaming of this for a long time -- but he didn't dream of just one win, nor did he dream of just making one NFL start.
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Houston Texans' 23-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns:
  • Smiles, hugs and happy shouts filled the hallway between the football field and the Texans' locker room. Defensive end J.J. Watt was one of the final players to walk in, and as soon as he crossed the threshold, he released a roar. It sounded something like this: "YEAAAHHHHHHHH! WOO!"
  • Clowney
    Jadeveon Clowney spent some time with trainers after the game but said he felt much better Sunday than he did after the Texans' Week 8 game against the Tennessee Titans. "I'm just looking forward to the next one," he added. Clowney suffered a torn meniscus in Week 1, then missed the next six games. He returned against the Titans but didn't leave that game feeling great.
  • Garrett Graham was a few yards from the end zone when he made the catch that wound up being the Texans' second touchdown. "I knew it wasn't far away when I caught the ball and turned up. When I saw it was only 5 or 6 yards, I just wanted to do everything I could to get in. Just tried to put my shoulder down and keep moving."
  • Coach Bill O'Brien said this of the Texans' offensive line: "I thought the line played their best game of the year. I thought the tight ends and the offensive line did a very good job of blocking." Guard Brandon Brooks has loftier ideas, though. "I'd say we played a good game," Brooks said. "Our best game? Hopefully that's the next game. I never want to say we played our best anything because there's always things to get better at."

Rapid Reaction: Houston Texans

November, 16, 2014
Nov 16

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts from the Texans' 23-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns at First Energy Stadium.

What it means: The Texans evened their record at 5-5 and have hope for the end of the season and the future. It's too soon to draw any sweeping conclusions about Ryan Mallett's future, but he certainly improved the Texans' offense. Defensively, there are still some kinks to work out, but the Texans allowed only one scoring drive, providing more than enough support for Mallett's debut.

Stock watch: Alfred Blue's stock is up. In Arian Foster's absence, Blue became the first Texans running back since Foster to have a 100-yard rushing game in his rookie season. The sixth-round pick saw the field well and toughed out yards after contact. He broke the previous franchise record for carries, which was 33. His 36-carry performance was in stark contrast to that of Ben Tate, whom the Texans let go in free agency last year. Tate had hoped to be a starter in Cleveland, but through three quarters against the Texans on Sunday, he had two carries for minus-9 yards.

Watt does Watt-like things: Mallett's first touchdown pass went to J.J. Watt. It was a more laborious catch than his first touchdown catch in Week 2 against Oakland, but it got the job done nonetheless. Watt also had a sack, a fumble recovery and three tackles for loss. There were a few less-than-ideal moments for Watt -- he had two roughing-the-kicker penalties, the second of which resulted in the Browns' only touchdown drive of the game. But that didn't cost Houston the game, in part because of how Watt played the rest of the game.

Game ball: We'll give it to Mallett, who changed the Texans' offense in his first career start. He threw two touchdowns and one interception, which resulted from a nice play by Browns defensive back Joe Haden. The deep ball became more threatening. The tight ends became more involved. The protection improved, aided by his quick release. Mallett's NFL debut as a starter, three and a half years in the making, was a success.

What's next: The other Ohio team visits Houston next Sunday, when the Texans host the Cincinnati Bengals.

CLEVELAND -- J.J. Watt did it again.

This time he punctuated the first touchdown drive of quarterback Ryan Mallett's career with a 2-yard touchdown catch.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
AP Photo/Tony DejakHouston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) celebrates his first-quarter touchdown catch.
The reception (the longest of Watt's fledgling NFL tight end career) put the Texans up 7-0.

With it, Watt became the first defensive lineman since 1948 to have four touchdowns in a season. (Jack Zilly of the Los Angeles Rams and Ray Poole of the New York Giants each had four touchdowns in 1948.) He has two catches in which he lined up on offense as a tight end, one interception returned for a touchdown and one fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.

Moments later, on the other end of the field, Watt sacked and knocked the ball from Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer. Cleveland recovered but missed the ensuing field goal.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, this season Watt has as many or more red zone catches than Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Vincent Jackson, Victor Cruz, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis.

Watt's first touchdown catch came against the Oakland Raiders in Week 2. The Raiders lost track of the out-of-place defensive lineman, and Ryan Fitzpatrick found Watt wide open in the end zone.

This one was tougher. Watt was well-covered by Browns linebacker Chris Kirksey but reached to pull in the pass and kept both feet inbounds before tumbling out of bounds.
Right away it was obvious when he saw the photo, he loved it. This one epitomized so much about J.J. Watt.

The Houston Texans' star pass-rusher was dressed in his uniform with white pants and a blue jersey. Photographer Art Streiber asked him to start facing the back of the room and then slowly turn, holding a lasso in his right hand, wearing a cowboy hat and a big Texas belt buckle with his name on it.

[+] Enlargejj watt
Art StreiberJ.J. Watt posed before longhorns during his recent ESPN The Magazine photo shoot.
What excited Watt wasn't the perfectly symmetrical straight-on shot from the same part of the shoot. This one was a little more jaunty. Watt's body tilted toward the right as if in motion, he was looking down and the cowboy hat covered his eyes.

"Old school," Watt said, and asked for a copy.

Watt is a football player with an old-school work ethic, and he's one who cares about how he presents himself. No, he wasn't interested in putting on big Texas hair in the form of blonde wigs, or looking like a steer wearing cut-out horns and a nose ring. Watt was interested in the more classic photo options presented to him. At the same time, the tilt was just as representative of Watt, a player who doesn't fit into the usual molds of what a 3-4 defensive end should be.

That photo in particular didn't make it into the issue. A similar, but more upright, shot wound up in this photo gallery. On one of the two covers of ESPN The Magazine this week, Watt appears with a toothpick in his teeth that is adorned with a Texas state flag on the end. (Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is on the other cover). The story by Michael J. Mooney, which accompanies his photo spread, ponders: Can Watt become a Texas legend? The goal of the photo shoot: an iconic image that answered "yes."

The day began with a tray full of sandwiches, Watt arrived after a workout, after all. An idea board on the side of a partition created so Watt could change showed photos that resembled images they might try. To the left in the dance hall at the ranch were tables filled with Texas-themed props.

Watt agreed to have the outline of the state of Texas painted onto his left arm to look like a brand seared into his skin. Before the photo that focused on his arm he did a few reps with a couple of adjustable electronic dumbbells ("That's a Cushing tip," he said with a sly smile, referring to teammate Brian Cushing) before walking outside for the first set of shots. A small crowd of workers from the ranch had gathered nearby.

A wardrobe change came soon after. Watt tried on a pair of skinny jeans, hopping around in them and asking aloud how women get into them. They settled on a looser pair of jeans, a white T-shirt and a red plaid jacket that's 66 years old and belonged to stylist Sherrie Krantz's grandfather.

The group moved into a field nearby, one right next to a fenced-off group of cattle, with their ankles taped to avoid fire ants. Two tame longhorns await their photoshoot and begin to moo. One, named Gateway, shares a scene with Watt. He sneezes, and Watt gets startled.

"He's got allergies, just like us," Gateway's handler says.

"We were about to have to go," Watt says to Gateway, sounding relieved they didn't have to go.

The longhorn is actually afraid of people.

Streiber takes a few stunning shots of Watt with the bull, then he moves over to a wooden fence and leans against it. At first unsure, Watt's enjoying himself now. He has ideas. He wants to sit on top of the fence but is told he might be too heavy. Indeed, the wood makes a cracking sound under his weight, but sustains itself under his 289 pounds. It's up there Streiber gets some of this shoot's grandest photos.

The many places J.J. Watt lines up

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
HOUSTON -- The element of surprise is important in football and the Texans often create it with where their best player lines up.

J.J. Watt is listed as a right defensive end on the Texans' depth chart, but that only tells part of the story. In fact, most of his snaps haven't come there at all.

"I think if you ask opposing coaches, I think it’s very difficult to get a beat on him and where he’s going to be aligned," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "He’s an end, he’s inside at three-technique, sometimes he’s on the center, sometimes he could be floating around, walking around and times up a blitz from somewhere where he’s walking around. I think that’s a big key."

To find out where exactly Watt lines up, I took a dive into our stats tools, which can track each place a player lines up, to get a synopsis for Watt. There's shading to all of these positions, but for the sake of simplicity we divide them into simple categories. In those, this season Watt has lined up in five different positions.

In 2014, the vast majority of his snaps (401) have come at left defensive end. From there, Watt has notched 6.5 of his sacks, both of his defensive touchdowns, four batted passes and three fumble recoveries. He's played 159 snaps at right defensive end, with one sack and two batted passes there. And he's also played one snap at left defensive tackle, three snaps at right defensive tackle and two snaps at left inside linebacker. Playing off the line, Watt notched a sack on one of those two snaps.

Our numbers don't have Watt lined up as an outside linebacker or nose tackle this season, but in his career (regular season only) Watt has lined up at left outside linebacker once, right outside linebacker twice and 17 times as a nose tackle.

Where Watt lines up is also only part of the picture.

Some time during his second year in the NFL, Watt started getting more freedom to determine his own role within the Texans' defense.

"It sure didn’t start like that," Watt said. "That’s for sure."

But since it became that way, first under former Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and now with his successor, Romeo Crennel, that's become one part of what makes Watt so great.

"Sometimes it’s within the scheme of within the system," Watt said. "There are certain different things that we do and then there are also times where I get the freedom to move around a little bit. I’ve been very fortunate both in Wade Phillips and now in Romeo Crennel that we’ve had that trust between us that they trust me to know that I’m going to help the team and I trust them to put us in the best position as well."

Watt's versatility doesn't get as much attention as his athletic ability, his work ethic and his physical stature, but it's important.