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How Much J.J. Watt Plays Is Snap Decision For Cardinals

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph would like to keep defensive end fresh

Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt works at practice on Thursday after a two-sack game in Minnesota.
Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt works at practice on Thursday after a two-sack game in Minnesota.

When J.J. Watt ran over the Vikings lineman for his second sack of the game in Minnesota, he rocked the baby – for his new son Koa – and delivered a tribute celebration for former Vikings star pass rusher Jared Allen.

The veteran defensive end also gave the Cardinals a chance to tie the game with the third-down Kirk Cousins takedown.

That's what the Cardinals hoped for and need from Watt. But there is a way to get there, in the mind of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, and it is a battle – "A problem he and I have," Joseph said – to get that in line with Watt.

Watt's snap count and snap percentage is higher than Joseph would like in Watt's 12th season, but Joseph said, "it's tough to tell J he can't play than many snaps."

"It was an agreement, but that's been broken a couple of times," Joseph said. "That's been our issue, he and I. But we'll fix that. He wants to be out there and play, but he's got to have more quality reps than quantity in my opinion."

Joseph and Watt have a relationship back to Houston a decade ago. "We're boys," Joseph said, emphasizing such discussions are good-natured.

Watt has now played in seven games this season, equaling the number he played last season for the Cardinals before injuring his shoulder. He has 4½ sacks, six tackles for loss and three passes batted down, all numbers that exceeded what he did a season ago.

"VJ frees me up a bit, allows me to do what I do," Watt said on this week's "Sideline Exchange." "Zach (Allen) is playing very well. It's all about coverage for a rush guy. If we get enough time we can get back there. Rush and coverage play together and I love playing defense."

He loves it enough to go on the field more often than expected.

Watt missed the opener with an injury, but played just 63 and 62 percent of the defensive snaps his first two games. He jumped to 79 percent in the third week, but it was only 41 snaps against the Rams because the Cardinals weren't on defense much.

Since then, however, Watt has played 79 percent of the snaps – an average of 56 per game – and the 33-year-old has climbed even with the much-younger Allen as defensive linemen with the most snaps.

"Once you are in it, you just want to keep on going," Allen said. "J.J. is a competitor, he wants the opportunities. You'd rather have that than have a guy who asks to come out."

Joseph still marvels at Watt's work during the week, in practice and in the video room. The fewer snaps allows him to use less energy overall so he can still call up the tools that made him a menace in his prime – like his final sack in Minnesota.

"J.J. still, one on one, he can win," Joseph said. "He still gets respect from offensive line as far as the protection sliding or him being doubled team. When he is rushing on guards and centers, he is still dominant. He's strong, he's long, he's explosive.

"He's not what he was in Houston when I was with him 10 years ago, but he's still a guy you have to account for, or he can wreck the game."

Joseph wants to make sure Watt is doing that in Week 14 and 15 too, however. So conversations will be had.

"He wants to be out there and I get it," Joseph said. "It's a time when we want our good players on the field and helping us win. But sometimes it's not good to play 12-to-14 snaps in a row for any D-lineman in this league.

"It's tough to tell J, 'Hey, come sit down for five plays.' But it's a good problem to have."

Images of the Cardinals practicing at the Dignity Health Sports Complex before the Week 9 regular season matchup against the Seattle Seahawks