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McClain: Watt brothers have a lot in common on field

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 9/23/2020 By John McClain, Staff writer
a group of baseball players playing a football game: T.J. Watt, playing against the Texans as a rookie in 2017, has joined his brother J.J. as one of the NFL’s top pass rushers. © Brett Coomer, Staff / Houston Chronicle

T.J. Watt, playing against the Texans as a rookie in 2017, has joined his brother J.J. as one of the NFL’s top pass rushers.

Two of the three Watt brothers — J.J. and T.J. — are among the NFL’s premier pass rushers, and they’ll be on opposite sidelines in Pittsburgh on Sunday when the Texans try to avoid an 0-3 start against the undefeated Steelers.

T.J. Watt plays outside linebacker, and he’s tied for the NFL lead with 2½ sacks in victories over the New York Giants and Denver.

J.J. Watt plays defensive end for the Texans, and he’s one-half sack behind his brother after losses to Kansas City and Baltimore.

T.J. is a legitimate candidate to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award after recording 27½ sacks during the past two seasons, including 14½ in 2019 when the Steelers led the league with 54.

J.J. has 98 sacks, is the NFL’s career leader with 0.86 per game and has been voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times, tying Lawrence Taylor for the most in history.

Even though J.J. is older (31), taller (6-foot-5) and heavier (288 pounds) than T.J., who’s 25 and 6-4, 252, they have a lot in common on and off the field.

“The work ethic, the desire to do whatever it takes to do it, whether it’s the offseason and training, eating right, sleeping — whatever it takes to make yourself as great as possible,” J.J. said Wednesday. “Derek falls into the exact same category.”

Derek Watt, 27, is the middle brother who’s playing in his first season as Pittsburgh’s fullback after spending four years with the Chargers. Growing up in Pewaukee, Wis., Derek was the best high school player in the family, and he followed his older brother to Wisconsin. T.J. was the third brother to play for the Badgers.

J.J. got bragging rights over Derek last season when the Texans won a road game over the Chargers. Now J.J. would like to earn bragging rights over T.J., too.

The Watts are exceptional pass rushers, and opponents have to build game plans around them. They have similarities when it comes to pressuring the passer and forcing him to get rid of the ball before he’s ready or being the victim of a strip sack.

“In terms of getting the quarterback, it’s moves, speed, agility and power, but it’s also effort, a relentless attitude,” J.J. said. “Having that vision to see how the play’s going and where you have to go (and) chasing all the way to the end.”

And the Watts know they’ve been blessed with God-given ability, or they wouldn’t have reached the NFL and experienced success.

“We’re very fortunate when it comes to genes and talent,” J.J. said. “That only takes you so far. It comes down to how hard you want to work.”

Ask any coach or scout in the NFL about the Watts, and they start with a work ethic that comes from their parents, John and Connie.

“Our parents made us,” J.J. said. “They worked extremely hard for what they got in life and taught us if we wanted to accomplish our dreams and goals, we also had to work extremely hard and make sacrifices. At the time, we hated it, but now we understand and appreciate it.”

The brothers had to work hard or suffer the consequences.

“My dad was hard on us in sports, and we had no choice but to work as hard as we possibly could lifting weights, running and having great practices,” J.J. said. “My mom was hard on us in school. We had no choice but to do our homework and get good grades.

“If you had a bad day at practice, you went home and talked to mom because she was going to be a little softer on you. If you had a bad report card, you’d go to dad, but we always knew he was going to give it to her, and we were going to get the whopping either way.”

The Watt brothers will make history in Pittsburgh. Since 1927, it’ll be the second time three brothers have played in the same game. It also happened last season when the Steelers played the Bills and the Edmunds brothers — Tremaine, Terrell and Trey — played in the game.

It’s not surprising the Steelers’ defense is second with 10 sacks, one behind Washington. Coach Mike Tomlin has the league’s best pair of outside linebackers in Watt and Bud Dupree. They combined for 26 sacks in 2019. They’ve combined for 3½ in two games this season.

“The things that make T.J. the player he is are his day-to-day attention to detail and his hyper focus on the development of skills, of understanding game planning, of getting to know the people he has to compete against, whether it’s schematics or the personnel,” Tomlin said. “He has a hyper focus about him that allows him to maximize everything from a preparation standpoint. His talents are what they are. Together that produces the play you see consistently.”

Tomlin has watched Texans’ tape and is formulating a game plan that places an emphasis on containing Watt.

“He plays multiple places, primarily it appears to be for matchup purposes,” Tomlin said. “I think if he’s got a one-on-one, he’s got a pretty good advantage regardless of who he’s going against.

“For us, it’s about working to be cognizant of where he is, and, hopefully, minimizing his ability to do damage to us, whether it’s in terms of production or just as a disrupter. When he’s not producing stats, he’s just generally disruptive in terms of the normal flow of your offense.”

Going back to J.J. Watt’s rookie season in 2011, despite missing 32 games because of injuries, he’s second in the NFL with 98 sacks. He still leads the league with 160 tackles for loss, 270 quarterback hits, 26 multi-sack games and 15 fumble recoveries.

Knowing how close and competitive the Watt brothers are, they’ll leave everything on the field to try to win and earn bragging rights that’ll give them a lot of time for trash talking.

Watching J.J. harass Ben Roethlisberger and T.J. bully Deshaun Watson could be the most interesting thing about this game.

“They have a relentless playing style in combination with their athletic ability,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “Their size, their speed for the positions they play, their ability to bend. They’re very instinctive players.

“There’s a lot of things that are similar, and there’s some things that are different. Overall, (they) just attack the football relentlessly on every play.”

john.mcclain@chron.com

twitter.com/mcclain_on_nfl

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