FOXBOROUGH — Most weeks, the Patriots fan’s checklist of things that can go wrong whenever Tom Brady drops back to pass is only five items long. In order of alarming, from unfortunate to catastrophic:
You can add a sixth potential pothole for the next game, against the AFC-leading Texans on “Monday Night Football” at Gillette Stadium. Courtesy of J.J. Watt, Houston’s destructive defensive end, Brady just might see a few of his passes swatted right back at him. It’s a play that Watt is quickly becoming known for, and quarterbacks facing the Texans are having to plan for. That means some unusual props will be featured at Patriots practice.
Taking a page from a basketball team preparing for an extra-tall center, the Patriots will utilize everything in their arsenal to get Brady ready for Watt and his defensive linemates, all of whom are capable of knocking passes down at the line of scrimmage.
This week, that means brooms and rackets.
“I know coach [Bill] Belichick likes to bring guys with racquetball paddles and stick those up in the air,” said Brady Wednesday morning, before practice. “I’m sure there will be a whole bunch this week, which doesn’t always make me very happy.
“That’s probably a good way to prepare for it. It’s like throwing over . . . this wall [motioning to the backdrop behind him]. It’s hard, you just got to try to find an area.”
Watt & Co. don’t make that easy, either. Their ability to disrupt the passing game is a big reason they’re 11-1, two games up on New England, Denver, and Baltimore in the race for the conference’s top seed, which brings home-field advantage until the Super Bowl.
On the season, Watt has a team-high 15 passes defensed, almost all on knockdowns. His 15½ sacks lead the Texans, too, and put him second in the league, two behind San Francisco’s Aldon Smith.
A second-year pro from Wisconsin, Watt was a first-round draft pick in 2011, and has needed very little time working his way into the conversation of best defensive player in the league.
He might already have Belichick’s vote.
“He’s the most disruptive player in the league, certainly that we’ve seen,” Belichick said. “That looks like the Defensive Player of the Year to me.”
Watt is 6 feet 5 inches and is surrounded by similarly sized pass rushers in Antonio Smith (6-4), Shaun Cody (6-4), Connor Barwin (6-4), and rookie Whitney Mercilus (6-4). All are proving to be hard to throw over, but at least Brady (6-4) won’t be at a size disadvantage.
That doesn’t make his task any easier, though. Especially with Watt leading the way.
“He’s an incredible player, and the way that he gets after the quarterback, stops the run, I think he does both those things well, as well as defending the passing lane, so he’s as impressive a player as you’re going to see on film,” Brady said. “His agility, his quickness, his length, his instinctiveness in getting his hands up in the air and get ready to jump and bat balls down.
“He’s a great player for that defense. They really rely on him.”
Other defensive linemen in the NFL knock passes down at the line of scrimmage, but Watt has turned it into an art, averaging about one per game, some of which have been tipped by him and then intercepted by others.
Appearing on ESPN Radio Tuesday morning, Watt described how he reads a pass play, and whether to continue with his rush, or retreat and attempt to knock the ball down.
“As I pass rush, I always have my eyes on the quarterback, no matter what,” he said. “Pretty early in your pass rush, you know whether or not you’re going to get there. You have to win pretty clean in this league to get a sack, so early in my pass rush I can tell if I’m going to get there or not. You can kind of get a feel for if it’s going to be a three-step drop or a five-step drop, so all those things play a factor.
“The three-step drops are obviously the easier ones to bat down. When I get kind of stoned at the line of scrimmage, and I see the quarterback take his front hand off the ball and go to cock his arm back, that’s when I put my hands up, jump and try to get in his way. A lot of times I’ll miss, but the times I get lucky are obviously big plays in the game. We’re very happy to have those, and everyone else is joining in on it.”
It’ll be up to Brady — and the Patriots offensive line — to make sure Watt and the Texans don’t get their hands on too many balls. All it takes is one for a big play to be made and momentum changed.
“There’s no special formula to blocking a good defensive lineman,” said Brady. “You just have to stand up and try to go out and play a great game. That’s what makes it so hard for an offense to stop a guy like that, who’s so capable of winning his matchups.
“We’ve played other big D-lines before, tall guys that are rangy and are really instinctive. The Giants did a great job of that last year, and this is another team that really challenges you to do that.”