Many NFL coaches are quick to suggest that the rigors of training camp can shape a player's propensity for success during the regular season.
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt may be the poster boy who dispels that notion.
Watt leads the league in sacks (9 1/2) and ranks first on the team in both tackles (48) and tipped passes (eight). He has tied a franchise record with a sack in six straight games to open the season, and he accomplished all this in just his second year as a pro despite missing the bulk of training camp and every preseason game due to a dislocated left elbow.
"I missed all four games, and I said at that time that I felt like an animal in a cage, and they finally let me out of the cage in the regular season," Watt said. "So I've been hungry ever since and my hunger's still not satisfied. I'm still making up for lost time. I just enjoy being out there with my teammates. Being out for those four weeks, it really shows you how much you love the game and how much you love being out there and playing with your teammates. So I think it was not fun to sit out, but it was one of those blessings in disguise."
Houston coach Gary Kubiak, whose Texans will face the Ravens at Reliant Stadium on Sunday, acknowledged the irony of Watt's achievements when compared to his lack of activity in camp and the preseason.
"He did miss training camp, so we were concerned about that. I guess that means camp is overrated because he's played pretty damn well," Kubiak said. "He's a young player, plays with a lot of energy, very smart player. I think he's learning this league more and more each week, and it's helping him be successful."
Watt has taken the league by storm for what some are calling his "freakish" skills. The 6-foot-5, 295-pound Watt is powerful and uses his long arms to disengage himself from opposing blockers. He's also quick enough to simply explode past a lineman either off the edges or between the tackles.
"The first thing is, he's just a relentless player," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "He's one of those guys where you're trying to get him blocked, but he doesn't stay blocked. So you've got to be aware of where he is. They play him right and left, but he's not by himself. This defense is loaded. They've got some changes at linebacker, obviously, but if he was the only guy we had to worry about, then we could probably find a way to put two or three people on him. If you double him or single him or block him from right to left or left to right, and you've got to make sure that once you have him blocked, he stays blocked."
As stunning as his sack numbers are, Watt has also opened eyes with his ability to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage. Three of the eight passes he has deflected in 2012 have been intercepted and led to Houston touchdowns, and he leads all AFC defensive linemen in passes defensed since being selected as the 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
But Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said he can't concern himself with the whereabouts of Watt's hands when he's trying to avoid the pass rush and hit his receivers.
"Just go throw the ball. Our offensive line just has to do a good job of protecting and we'll do things that take care of that," Flacco said. "You have to make sure that they don't let him separate and jump up. He does a good job at it. There's only so much you can do. For me, I'm just going to go out there and throw the ball like I always do and try to look for lanes and get it over the top of guys and if he happens to make a play, he makes a play."
In his rookie campaign, Watt led the Texans in tackles for losses (13) and ranked fourth in sacks (5 1/2). They were modest numbers, but they didn't deter defensive coordinator Wade Phillips from predicting in the preseason that Watt would have a bust in the Hall of Fame after the end of his career.
Maybe Phillips saw something, but the same could be said for Watt, who said he wasn't caught off guard by his production thus far.
"I worked very hard for it, and when you put in the work and the effort and the players I have around me and a defensive coordinator, I think it's great and it's awesome, and I'm going to try to keep it going because I'm having a lot of fun," he said. "I think it's a product of not just me. I've always said it's not just a one-man show. Everyone around me is playing great, giving me opportunities. Coach Phillips puts me in position to make plays. That's all you can ask for as a player."
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