PITTSBURGH (AP) Josh Mauro pulled the orange mesh top with the No. 99 on it, wiped his forehead and shook his head.
Turns out the only thing that might be harder than blocking J.J. Watt is trying to impersonate him.
Mauro, a member of the Steelers’ practice squad, spent the days leading up to Monday night’s game against Watt and the Houston Texans (3-3) doing his best to emulate the borderline unstoppable defensive end.
Article continues below ...
There are some similarities. At 6-foot-6, Mauro is actually an inch taller than the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Like Watt, Mauro was an impact player in college, helping anchor Stanford teams that made regular trips to the Rose Bowl.
Yet where Watt was a first-round pick by the Texans in 2011, Mauro watched the 2014 draft come and go without hearing his name called. He signed with the Steelers as a rookie free agent and agreed to a spot on the practice squad when he couldn’t survive the final round of cuts.
Watching games on the weekend in a sweatsuit is weird. But at least Mauro has a job, which this week included floating up and down the line of scrimmage trying to do all the things that make Watt one of the most disruptive forces in the league.
It’s not easy.
”If you have a guy on your scout team like (Watt), they’re probably going to be playing,” Mauro said. ”The most impressive thing is the stuff you can’t coach.”
Mauro did his best anyway. One snap he was over the center. The next he was at defensive end. Another he was standing up. For a player trying to catch on, there are worse people to emulate. Mauro considers it part of his education.
”You’re always looking to pick up stuff, whether it’s from him or guys like (teammates) Cam Heyward or Brett Keisel,” Mauro said. ”I try to do similar things to (Watt), but a lot of things he does, it’s not technique. It’s just him.”
It’s only the middle of October and Watt has already become the fourth player in NFL history to have a touchdown reception, interception return for touchdown and fumble recovery for TD in same season. Mauro likely won’t find his way into a uniform on Sunday this season barring injury, let alone make it all the way to the end zone during a game.
Still, he figures his energetic play helped him land a spot on the 10-man practice squad. If all else fails, at least he has that when he faces the Pittsburgh starting offensive line during the week.
”I go the same speed no matter what jersey I have on,” Mauro said.
And the Steelers hope that’s enough. Pittsburgh has allowed 17 sacks this season during an uneven 3-3 start, though quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has taken some of the blame, allowing he sometimes holds on to the ball too long.
That can’t happen on Monday night if the Steelers want to get back into the mix in the crowded AFC North. While the Texans are 27th in yards allowed, their 14 takeaways are tied with New England for most in the NFL mainly because of Watt’s uncanny ability to find his way to the ball.
”He is a freakish athlete whose motor never stops,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. ”You aren’t going to keep him off the stat sheet entirely.”
The Steelers will try anyway. While they have a healthy respect for Watt, they’re not cowering from the challenge.
”He’s not superhuman,” left guard Ramon Foster said. ”He’s a guy who works his butt off is what he does.”
On that front Mauro can relate. He’s earned praise from his teammates for his preparation and effort and he understands he plays for a team where practice squad players can evolve into Sunday contributors. It worked for linebacker James Harrison, who morphed from project into one of the league’s most menacing players.
Mauro is hardly there yet. For now he’s content being a mimic. Two weeks ago it was Cleveland’s Paul Kruger. This week it was Watt. Next week it’ll be somebody else. Hey, it beats working for a living.
”Everyone has got a role on the team and my job is to do the best possible (imitation) and get better myself with my technique,” he said. ”Whatever they ask me to do I do with a really high motor and just try to get them ready for game day.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL