Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is drawing comparisons to some of the all-time greatest NFL linemen with his brilliant play.
And to think the coaches at Central Michigan University wanted Watt to become the next Joe Staley.
Staley began his college career as a CMU tight end but was shifted to left tackle. The move was so successful that San Francisco selected Staley in the first round of the 2007 draft.
Later that year, Watt made his Chippewas debut as a true freshman at tight end. Staley told FOXSports.com that the CMU staff then “tried to do what they did to me to him” by converting Watt.
Unlike with Staley, Watt was so resistant to the scenario that he believed delivering pizzas was a better option. That’s the job Watt held to make ends meet when leaving his CMU scholarship behind to become a walk-on at the University of Wisconsin.
“They missed out,” Staley said of his alma mater. “They were like, ‘We’re going to move you to tackle now,’ and he was like, ‘Nah.’ I think he wanted a little more glory than what the tackle position offers so he moved and made himself into a hell of a player.”
Staley himself will have to face other defensive ends who have drawn similar praise Sunday when the 49ers host the New York Giants in the FOX America’s Game of the Week (4:25 p.m. ET).
Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are the key members of the “NASCAR” pass rush that helped the Giants beat San Francisco in last year’s NFC Championship Game en route to winning Super Bowl XLVI. But through five games this season, the trio isn’t up to speed. Watt has almost as many sacks single-handedly for the Texans (6.5) as the Giants have produced as a team (8).
Some opponents have attacked New York with quick passes to counter the pass rush, like Dallas did in a season-opening victory. Coverage struggles by an injury-depleted secondary also have given the Giants less time to reach the quarterback.
“I think we all are kind of puzzled,” Tuck told Giants media earlier this week. “It’s not like we forgot how to rush the passer. We’ve been doing it all our lives. It’s something strange, but we’ll figure it out.”
Staley and San Francisco’s four other starting offensive linemen will try to ensure such discovery doesn’t happen on their watch, especially with 49ers quarterback Alex Smith nursing a sprained middle finger on his right (throwing) hand. The Giants sacked Smith three times in last season’s NFC title game.
"They all present a little something different,” Staley said of New York’s ends. “JPP is really physically gifted with his long arms and size, and he’s real physical. Osi is a quick, fast-twitch guy. He’s got a lot of different moves with his initial get-off. And even though Tuck is mainly on the right side, I could be going against him.
“That’s the thing. They do a lot of different stuff as far as where they line those guys up. But we did have two games against them last year, so we’re kind of familiar with their personnel.”
In turn, the Giants know San Francisco’s offensive line has become one of the league’s best with three first-round picks (Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis) as well as veteran center Jonathan Goodwin and first-year starter Alex Boone at right guard. The unit paved the way for the 49ers to become the first team in NFL history with 300 rushing and 300 passing yards in the same game in last Sunday’s 45-3 rout of Buffalo.
"I feel like we’re all playing at a pretty high level,” Staley said before pointing out reasons San Francisco’s line won’t be getting overconfident. The 49ers have surrendered 12 sacks, which is tied for the league’s 11th-highest total entering Week 6 games.
“We’ve got to shore some things in pass protection,” Staley said. “Early on I had a few struggles there, especially in the first game (against Green Bay). But I feel like I’ve got those under control.”
Staley, 28, is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. Asked whether he could have achieved the same heights as Watt had he converted to the other side of the football, Staley deadpanned, “I think so. I’d be a dominant defensive player. I’d be in the mold of him and (49ers end) Justin Smith.”
Staley then smiled and said, “I’m kidding. I’ve never played defense in my life.”
Staley must now do his part to make sure New York’s defense doesn’t start playing well again Sunday.