J.J. Watt on historic pace in swats, sacks

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J.J. Watt isn't just off to a great start this season. He's off to a historic start.

The second-year defensive end leads the NFL with 9.5 sacks through seven games. He's tied for second in the league with 10 passes defensed, an incredible number for a defensive lineman. Four of those passes have been intercepted.

Since passes defensed were officially tracked beginning in 1991, no player has ever recorded 14 sacks and 14 passes defensed in a single season. Watt is on pace for 21.5 and 23, respectively.

The NFL sack record is 22.5, set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Two players (Jared Allen in 2011 and Mark Gastineau in 1984) have had 22 sacks. Two others (Chris Doleman in 1989 and Reggie White in 1987) have had 21. Watt is on track to join their ranks after recording a sack in every game but one so far this season.

Perhaps even more extraordinary has been Watt's penchant for batting down passes. The NFL single-season record for passes defensed by a defensive lineman is 13, set by White in 1991. Watt, who's 6-5, 295 with long arms and huge hands, is on pace to surpass that in the 10th game of the season.

"It's unreal," linebacker Bradie James, a 10th-year veteran, said. "Sometimes, he does things and you're just like, 'I don't know how he does that.' And to tip the ball consistently the way that he does, man, we're watching something that never really happens."

Watt, whose ball-batting prowess has earned him the nickname "J.J. Swatt," has more passes defensed through seven games than any defensive lineman in NFL history. The previous record was eight, set by Tampa Bay's Simeon Rice in 2002 and matched by Houston's Robaire Smith in 2004.

"I've got a lot bigger goals on my plate than some seven-week goal," Watt said after tipping two passes against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. "There's 16 weeks in a season, and I plan to use them all."

Watt is already tied for the eighth-most passes defensed by a defensive lineman in a season. Five linemen have notched 11 passes defensed: Carolina's Greg Hardy (2011), Allen (2006, 2007), Miami's Jason Taylor (2004, 2006), Rice (2002) and Denver's Alfred Williams (1996). Watt is the sixth with 10, and he has nine games remaining.

Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and assistant head coach/defensive line Bill Kollar harp on batting down balls in practice, but Watt has shown a knack for it since college.

"We didn't invent it," Phillips said. "He knocked down 12, I believe, in his senior year, so he was the number one pass defender on Wisconsin's team. I've had some guys that were really good at it. J.J. is the best that I've ever been around."

With his next sack, Watt will become the 11th player with at least 10 sacks and 10 passes defensed in a season since 1991. The last one to do it was Allen in 2007.

Watt also leads the Texans' third-ranked defense in quarterback hits (16), tackles for loss (16) and fumble recoveries (2). He ranks second on the team in tackles (34), just two behind safety Glover Quin. He has 5.5 more sacks, eight more quarterback hits, 11 more tackles for loss and three more passes defensed than his next-closest teammate in each category.

The 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Watt had 5.5 sacks as a rookie in the regular season. He took his game to another level in the playoffs, tying for the NFL lead with 3.5 sacks and returning an interception for a touchdown. Just 23, he has maintained that spectacular level of play seven games into his second season.   

"He's come along so fast," Phillips said. "Like I said at the end of the year last year, I thought he was playing tremendously well, and he's carried it over into this season. He's one of the best defensive linemen in the league. I don't know what I expect now."

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