I can't tell you how many distraught Buffalo Bills fans, looking forward to this weekend's game against the Houston Texans, have approached or written me this week to express angst over the fact that Houston "replaced" Mario Williams with J.J. Watt and have actually improved. As much as that may functionally be true, Watt didn't actually replace Williams - and as often as I've had to repeat that this week, I figured it was worthwhile to run it by Tim at Battle Red Blog to officially set the record straight.
"J.J. Watt did not replace Mario Williams," Tim reports. "J.J. plays defensive end in Wade Phillips' 3-4. Mario played outside linebacker in Wade's 3-4. Totally different positions and totally different responsibilities. When Mario went down last year, Brooks Reed replaced him."
When Williams was lost for the 2011 season with a pectoral injury, Reed - then a rookie second-round pick - assumed his spot in the starting lineup, where fellow rookie (at the time) Watts was already a starter. Tim tells us that nothing has changed since that point in time, either.
"Reed is still starting at outside linebacker, with Connor Barwin manning the other outside spot spot," Tim reports. "Whitney Mercilus, the Texans' first-round pick in 2012, has begun to get more snaps in the rotation the last couple of weeks, so plan on seeing him on Sunday as well."
Certainly when you sub in a Reed for a Williams, you're bound to get spectacularly more athletic at the 3-4 outside linebacker position; that' just not a role that Williams is suited for. Last season, the Texans didn't miss a beat, with Barwin and Reed combining for 17.5 sacks as the Texans won the AFC South and made the post-season.
Things have changed a bit this season, however: Barwin, Reed and Mercilus have combined for a fairly meager 4.5 sacks. Watt, meanwhile, has exploded onto the national scene, garnering Defensive Player of the Year talk (and even MVP whispers) as he's accumulated 9.5 sacks through the Texans' first seven games. That might explain why the misconception of Watt replacing Williams has come forth: Watt's simply been the dominant force that Bills fans expected Williams to be this season.
The Bills will certainly know where Watt is on an every-down basis this Sunday.
"J.J. is playing out of his mind right now," running back Fred Jackson said earlier this week. "It’ll be a good challenge for us, but to get to where we want to be, we gotta play teams like this. We have to go down to their place, which is going to be a tough thing for us to do. We like what we got here, and what we can do. So, it’ll be a good challenge for us, but we look forward to it."