IRVING, Texas – If nothing else, it's quickly becoming apparent how impressive the 2011 NFL Draft class is.
Two weeks ago, Tyron Smith – the No. 9 overall pick the 2011 draft -- dispatched the Rams' Robert Quinn, that year's No. 14 pick – without a sack to show for it. If the Cowboys are going to extend their current winning streak to four games, the Dallas offensive line will have to manage another 2011 draft class member – Houston's No. 11 overall pick, J.J. Watt.
"You can tell that he studies a lot, he prepares a lot," Smith said Wednesday. "All you can do is just prepare for it and study him the same way he studies you."
It's staggering how much of a role Watt has played in Houston's 3-1 start this season. In addition to his 15 tackles and two sacks, he's led the Texans' highlight reels with touchdowns on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball – not to mention three batted passes, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.
"He shows up in the run game, he shows up in the pass game. He sacks the quarterback, he intercepts the passes, he disrupts the game," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "He's clearly one of the best defensive linemen in the National Football League."
Unlike Quinn, however, Watt is destined to always have a link to the Cowboys. Dallas heavily considered selecting the Wisconsin defensive end in Garrett's first draft as head coach before ultimately deciding on Smith as their franchise left tackle.
"When they were on the clock at No. 9, that was really the first time that my family and I kind of started to watch what was going on a little bit – a little more closely," Watt said. "You never know where you're going to go or how things are going to work out, but that was at least kind of the point where we were like 'Ok, you never know what's going to happen, but at least let's start tuning in a little bit here.'"
It'd hard to find fault with either player to this point in their careers – they have three Pro Bowls between them, and they both recently signed lucrative contract extensions that will make them franchise mainstays for the foreseeable future.
"We felt like we needed to get some cornerstone players," Garrett said. "Tyron Smith was coming out that year and we felt like he can be a left tackle and be a cornerstone player for us for a long time."
Again, unlike the matchup with Quinn, neutralizing Watt is task that's bound to fall on all three of the Cowboys' first-round offensive linemen – all five starters, in fact. While Quinn lined up predominantly against Smith, Watt is famous for moving all around the Texans' 3-4 defense and creating havoc from multiple positions.
"First off, you never know where I'm going to line up, and I think that's always good," Watt said. "But then also, you try and find different matchups for different guys and things like that. You want to keep people guessing, but at the same time, for me, it's also fun."
Watt watched the Cowboys' Sunday night beating of New Orleans on TV and came away impressed. But he said the function of the offensive line has been even more impressive since he's been able to turn on the coaches' film of the first four games.
"I think that's one thing is impressive about them, is how they communicate well together," he said. "They know exactly what they're [embedded_ad]
supposed to do, where they're supposed to get to and how they're supposed to block, and they do it within their system very well."
With the way the line has performed of late, the Cowboys have to feel confident about their odds, even if that means the challenge falls on Doug Free – or even Zack Martin and Travis Frederick.
"You've got to study that film as well. So that adds a little bit more," Frederick said. "It's just another challenge. He's going to give you a lot of different things, so it's a lot of different things to prepare for."
None of Houston's four opponents to this point have had much success in taking that preparation to the field. The two times this season he's been held without a sack, against Oakland and Buffalo, he's found other way to make an impact.
Against the Raiders in Week 2 he lined up on offense and caught a one-yard touchdown pass, and he added a quarterback hit that led to an interception. Last weekend against the Bills, he took his interception of E.J. Manuel 80 yards to the house.
"You're going to see he's a hard-working player, has a really high motor and has become a pretty good player, so you've got to be your best for this coming week," Smith said.
After controlling the trenches so well last weekend against the Saints, Garrett said that challenge begins anew in preparing for Watt.
"Obviously this week starts with protection in the passing game, making sure that we secure that line of scrimmage, and he's certainly the No. 1 challenge," he said.