With swats, sacks and scores, Houston's JJ Watt making case for MVP and doing it with flair

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HOUSTON — J.J. Watt has been padding his highlight reel this season by doing things almost unheard of for a defensive end.

He swats passes, he sacks quarterbacks. He mugs for TV viewers, he dances for the fans.

But mostly, he dominates.

Watt's two-handed tip of a pass thrown by Buffalo's EJ Manuel was impressive on its own. But then he used his huge hands to grab the tipped ball out of the air and rumbled 80 yards for a touchdown. He capped it with his interpretation of the "Nae Nae," sending the home crowd into a frenzy.

Last week, he pounced on a fumble by the Colts' Andrew Luck, rolling over and bolting to his feet to dart 45 yards for another score.

All this came after the 6-foot-5, 289-pound Watt had a 1-yard touchdown reception in Week 2 and simply handed the ball to an official like he'd been there before. He had. He was a tight end in high school and early in college.

Add in his NFL-leading 20 quarterback hits and four sacks for the Texans, who play Pittsburgh on Monday night, and he has a legitimate shot to become the first defensive MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. With his clean image and down-home demeanor he's also a godsend for a league under fire over the off-the-field behavior of some of its biggest stars.

So why doesn't he enjoy the spoils of his new $100 million contract by frequenting clubs or partying around town?

"I score touchdowns on Sunday, that's pretty darn fun," Watt said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There's not much more that's going to top that. I'm not going to find a touchdown in a club. I'm not going to find a sack in a bar. So I just stay in my house and enjoy myself."

He is so good — on the field and off — that some might wonder if there's anything the 25-year-old doesn't do well.

"He needs to be told that he still has plenty of flaws. I told him: 'If you're going to keep scoring touchdowns you better get some dance lessons,'" Taylor Jannsen, Watt's friend since elementary school, said with a laugh. "His dance moves are terrible."

That's a word rarely used to describe anything about Watt, who was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 after piling up a franchise-record 20 ½ sacks and batting down 16 passes.

Quarterbacks rave about his prowess. Tony Romo said "he'll go down as one of the greats of the game" and that "he can disrupt a game by himself." Manuel, who was benched after facing Watt, said "it's very rare to see a d-lineman ... make plays like he's done."

"You do have to keep an eye on where 99 is," Luck added. "He's ... one of the best, if not the best, defensive players in the league."

Since entering the league in 2011, Watt has knocked down 33 passes — 10 more than any other defensive lineman in that span.

It's a skill he adopted at Wisconsin when line coach Charlie Partridge had players practice it every day.

"We'd have the d-linemen focus on the quarterback's eyes as they were working to gain ground and then set up and throw the ball and have them work on trying to bat the ball down," said Partridge, now the coach at Florida Atlantic. "You combine that just with some emphasis points while he's developing and obviously the fact that J.J.'s pretty special talent-wise."

Watt still uses some of those tips and said he doesn't even glance at offensive linemen when he's rushing.

"My eyes are always on the ball," Watt said. "I know what my hands need to do. I know where my feet need to go. So as I'm pass rushing I can see if he's getting ready to throw."

He contends that luck is a big factor when a defensive lineman gets his hands on a pass.

"There's plenty of times where I put my hands up and I look like a fool because the ball's not even close," Watt said. "But you just throw your hands up in the air and hope to get lucky, and obviously I've been luckier than most."

Those who know him best say luck has little to do with Watt's success. Jannsen, who grew up with Watt in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and lived with him this offseason, has had a front row seat to Watt's years of hard work and dedication.

"He is intrinsically motivated more than anyone else I know in my life," Jannsen said. "He's not motivated by money. He's not motivated by fame. He prides himself on being the best that he can be ... there's no amount of money that's going to make him different because of who he is."

Watt's exploits evoke a mixture of envy and awe among the big fellas on defense around the NFL.

"He's doing everything every d-lineman wants to do from getting the sack, batting the ball down to scoring touchdowns," Titans defensive tackle Sammie Hill said. "It's got to be the best feeling in the world."

Bills defensive end Jarius Wynn agreed.

"He's been tipping the ball, but for him taking it to the house and picking that fumble up a week ago, going the distance is every d-lineman's dream," Wynn said. "And he's definitely living the dream right now."

Many linemen are coached to simply fall on a fumble. That's not the case in Houston where defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel gives his players the green light to run if there's no one around.

"Generally, defensive linemen don't run very far," Crennel said. "But J.J. is a different kind of cat, so he was able to run for a touchdown when he recovered the fumble."

Don't expect him to carry the ball on offense a la William "Refrigerator" Perry back in the day.

"Running back? You never know," Houston coach Bill O'Brien said, seeming simultaneously annoyed and amused. "You just never know ... you might see Arian Foster at safety. You might see J.J. Watt at running back. You may see Andre Johnson at linebacker. You never know."

Watt is diligent about his diet and training regimen and laments that he can't indulge in beloved Wisconsin staples like bratwurst and cheese curds, or even drink beer, because it could alter the body he's worked so hard to perfect.

"I have to give up some things to get great," Watt said. "If you're not willing to give it up, you're probably not going to be great."

Another byproduct of his burgeoning fame, which has been intensified by commercials where he hawks everything from cellphones to pickup trucks, is that Houston's most eligible bachelor can't date like an average 20-something. He worries about "who really wants you for you and who wants you for the fame," and relies on setups from his small, trusted circle of friends and family.

Despite their best efforts he has yet to find anyone special who might be the future Mrs. J.J. Swatt.

"No, not right now," he said. "Just football."

And one more thing about the dance moves. Watt realizes he shouldn't wait by the phone for an invitation to join We Are Toonz and perform their "Nae Nae."

"I don't think the creators had me in mind when they saw that dance playing out," he said of the dance that involves waving one hand from side to side. "It's one of those things where you have to be able to laugh at yourself. When you get in the end zone in the NFL, it's so difficult to do that you have to have some fun. It is a game after all."


AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker, John Wawrow, Michael Marot and Schuyler Dixon, and freelance writer Mark Ludwiczak contributed to this story.


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