LAKE FOREST – Mike Tice spent his first season as the Bears’ offensive line coach in 2010 cheering for J.J. Watt, who then was college teammates with Tice’s son at Wisconsin.
Now the offensive coordinator, Tice has to figure out a way to stop Watt.
“It’s not like facing others,” Tice said Wednesday at Halas Hall. “He’s one of the top players, if not the top player, we’ve played against this year.”
Welcome to the toughest part of the Bears’ regular-season schedule.
The Bears (7-1) will play the Houston Texans (7-1) in a prime-time matchup Sunday at Soldier Field, and Watt’s success or failure could go a long way toward determining the outcome of the game. At the halfway mark of the regular season, the former Badger has 10½ sacks while deflecting or batting down 10 passes.
Highly talented pass rushers are nothing new to the Bears, who have faced Clay Matthews, DeMarcus Ware, Cliff Avril and others during the first eight games of the season. But none of those players possesses Watt’s rare ability to interrupt passes.
At 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, Watt poses a double threat for the Bears’ offensive line. He is strong enough to rush past them on his way to sacking Jay Cutler, but he is tall and athletic enough to stop, leap and deflect one of Cutler’s passes into a teammate’s arms.
Already this season, four of Watt’s deflections have led to interceptions.
“We work on that every single day,” Watt said. “It’s something we do in our individual period of practice. We emphasize it in team periods. …
“Those are huge plays. A lot of people talk about [Charles] Tillman’s knockouts. I think our batted balls turned into interceptions are just as big of a point of emphasis.”
To counter Tillman’s punches, opponents can do nothing but protect the football.
Likewise, to counter Watt’s lofty leaps, only one option exists for Bears’ linemen.
“Hit him low so he doesn’t want to jump up high,” Bears right tackle Gabe Carimi said. “That’s the only way. That’s what offensive linemen are taught across the league.”
Carimi should know. During college, he played against Watt every day in practice as the starting left tackle for the Badgers.
Wisconsin ran a 4-3 defensive scheme, whereas the Texans feature a 3-4 scheme with Wade Phillips calling the plays as defensive coordinator. The alignment allows Watt to shift spots on the defensive line before any given play, lining up across from a tackle on one snap and across from a guard on the next.
Although Watt’s duties have changed, Carimi said, his ability to swat passes has not.
“He did that in college, too,” Carimi said. “He’s a tall guy, so he uses that to his advantage. He’s probably done more now because he’s an interior guy. Using his height on the interior is probably getting [him] more batted passes down now.”
No matter where Watt lines up, the Bears will be ready to lunge at his legs every time he leaps.
Bears guard Chilo Rachal said he and his fellow linemen could not allow Watt’s long arms to block the path of one of Cutler’s throws. Every pass that Watt knocked down was a pass that otherwise could be a completion for good yardage.
“I haven’t had the fortune to catch a guy jumping on me this year yet,” Rachal said. “But if you can catch a guy at the wrong time and it hurts him, I’m pretty sure next time he’s going to be thinking a little different.”
As someone who has been knocked down, Bears defensive end Corey Wootton agreed.
“It definitely gets in your head,” Wootton said with a smile. “When you get cut a little bit, it makes you a little hesitant as a defensive lineman.”