HOUSTON — The Houston Texans are a young franchise, and one that didn’t start winning until last year, so it does not take long to establish your iconography around here.
The best quarterback in franchise history is the current quarterback. The best running back in franchise history is the running back on this year’s team. The only statues outside Reliant Stadium are bronze sculptures of anonymous bulls, which are the mascot.
The enduring images for the franchise are basically Arian Foster’s “Namaste” touchdown bow and, oh, something having to do with Andre Johnson.
But there is an image now that Texans fans are on their way to having burned into their minds after Houston’s 30-10 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at Reliant Stadium, and it is of second-year defensive end J.J. Watt, his huge mitts outstretched at the line of scrimmage, batting a pass into the air. It started last year — most memorably in the playoffs when Watt intercepted an Andy Dalton pass at the line of scrimmage and ran it in for a touchdown — and it continued Sunday, when Watt popped two Ryan Tannehill passes into the air for Texans interceptions.
“I go to the Y every Tuesday and Thursday and play outside setter,” Watt said. “That’s where I get my success from on the field.”
That was a joke, but Watt isn’t.
“We expect nothing less from him,” said running back Arian Foster, who had 79 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. “He’s been doing it since he got here.”
No single player did more Sunday to spark the Texans than Watt, who missed the entire preseason with an elbow injury. And, boy, did the Texans (1-0) need a spark. It was 3-3 for most of the first half. The Texans’ offense looked like it hadn’t gotten its morning coffee, and the Dolphins (0-1) were having a surprising amount of success shooting running back Reggie Bush though the middle of Houston’s celebrated defense.
Miami had six first downs, 44 rushing yards and a 3-0 lead after one quarter.
Midway through the second quarter, a pensive crowd had turned into a peeved one, booing the Texans after a couple of unsatisfactory drives.
But then something happened that is starting to feel inevitable. Watt stretched his bearish 6-foot-6 body into the path of one of Tannehill’s passes and linebacker Brian Cushing grabbed the rebound.
Two minutes later Arian Foster was spilling into the end zone to give the Texans their first lead of the game. That was with 1:53 left in the first half.
Next Dolphins possession, Watt did it again. This time cornerback Kareem Jackson came down with it and Foster scored again with 49 seconds left.
Then with 43 seconds left Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas fumbled from his own 30, the Texans recovered and Matt Schaub found Andre Johnson for a 14-yard touchdown pass.
The Texans had scored 21 points in less than two minutes, and that was that.
“You could feel it,” Watt said.
It was 24-3 at halftime and 27-10 at the end of the third quarter, and all of it was keyed by Watt’s tips, which he considers a combination of innate talent and learned skill.
“Once you start to work on it, once you start to understand a quarterback’s rhythm, you see his eyes, you see his arm motion, you can start to figure out when he’s gonna throw it,” Watt said. “And you know when you’re stuffed as a pass rusher. It happens. Sometimes you get stuck. Throw your hands up and try to make a play.”
Watt said he was unaware of this, but Tannehill had an inordinate number of passes batted down last year at Texas A&M too. For a quarterback who has that problem anyway, the Texans are a nightmare opponent. Defensive end Tim Jamison and linebacker Brian Cushing also batted down passes.
Watt did not necessarily enter the game with much hype as a defensive player of the year candidate, but he left it with a nice jump on the rest of the league, recording 1.5 sacks, a tackle for loss and three pass deflections.
This, of course, is more or less the way the game was supposed to go. The Texans were heavy favorites, mainly because rookie quarterbacks are not supposed to performe well on the road against elite defenses, and Tannehill complied.
The former Texas A&M quarterback going 20-for-36 for 219 yards, three interceptions and three sacks in his NFL debut. That made for a quarterback rating of 36.
“You have no idea how fun it is to play on this defense,” Watt said.