HOUSTON — Jadeveon Clowney is ready to shine in prime time.
The No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft failed to make an impact in his first two injury-plagued seasons . But now he’s healthy, playing well and ready for a national audience Thursday when the Houston Texans visit a New England Patriots team that will likely start rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
It will be just the second time Clowney has played in a nationally televised game after he sat out three of Houston’s four night games in his first two years because of various injuries.
When asked if he’s ready to show what he can do, a big smile crept across his face and he let out a small laugh before gathering himself to provide an answer.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be big for the team.”
A win would give the Texans a 3-0 start for the first time since they opened the 2012 season 5-0. Houston has been helped by an improved offense led by new quarterback Brock Osweiler and rookie receiver Will Fuller, but through the first two games the defense has been the strength of this team .
Clowney has been a key to the unit’s early success with seven tackles, including three for losses, a sack, five quarterback hits and a batted down pass. He’s doing a little bit of everything these days and the word coaches and teammates use most often to describe him is “disruptive.”
In his first two seasons, Clowney lined up as an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 scheme. Since Clowney was healthy throughout training camp, it has given the Texans more freedom to use the 6-foot-5, 266-pound player in different ways, and he’s mostly played defensive end in the first two games.
Regardless of where they put him, the Texans have been impressed with Clowney’s hustle this year.
“I think he’s playing really hard,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “There are a few clips on there where he is rushing the passer, the pass gets off and he’s chasing the ball carrier down. I think the guy is playing with tremendous effort and I’ll say that about all the guys on defense.”
Clowney, who earned a reputation as a fierce pass rusher in a standout career at South Carolina, did not have a sack as a rookie but finished with 4½ last year. His first two seasons were full of disappointment for both him and the team as he played just four games in 2014 before having microfracture surgery, and missed three games and Houston’s wild-card playoff loss to Kansas City last season due to a variety of other ailments.
As he started to pile up more injuries than sacks, criticism that he wasn’t living up to his draft status continued to grow. Clowney heard it all, but said he chose to ignore it. He knows that the injuries couldn’t be helped and believes there’s only one way to quiet his detractors.
“I’m not saying nothing,” he said. “I’m just going to keep letting my game speak and just keep getting better and better week by week.”
Clowney’s improvement has added another dimension to a pass rush led by last year’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and one that also features Whitney Mercilus, who had two sacks in Houston’s opener. Watt is excited about the possibilities for this defense full of playmakers.
“You never know where the play is going to come from, it could be a linebacker, it could be a (defensive back), it could be a guy up front getting a sack,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun when you play like that. I think it makes it difficult for other teams and that’s the goal.”
As Clowney continues to progress, Watt is slowly returning to form after missing all of training camp and the preseason after July surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back. He started to feel good on the field again last week after struggling in Houston’s opener. And it showed as he finished with 1 ½ sacks and recovered a fumble.
But he has a message those who think he’s back to full strength.
“I say partially,” he said. “I’m still working on some things and I think it may be some things that only I see. But there are definitely some things that I want to continue to improve upon. But I have to admit it did feel good on Sunday to … have some glimpses of my old self back. So I just want to continue that.”