HOUSTON -- The signature trademark of the Houston Texans' defense has been defined by the dominance of star defensive end J.J. Watt over the past six years as he built an impressive durability streak of never missing a game.
Now, the defending AFC South champions are suddenly tasked with replacing a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year regarded as irreplaceable in NFL circles. Watt was placed on injured reserve Wednesday after aggravating his surgically-repaired back.
The Texans' fifth-ranked defense features talented pass rushers with speed and power like Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney and stout run-stoppers in inside linebackers Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney along with nose tackle Vince Wilfork. However, no individual player comes close to approaching Watt's unique skillset as an athletic 6-foot-5, 290-pounder capable of routinely bull-rushing through blockers or defeating them with his superior speed.
"When you have that kind of ability and that kind of playmaking, it's hard to replace with one guy," Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "So, we're going to ask all the guys on defense to pick it up, to put a little bit extra in it and see if we can gain some of those plays that J.J. used to make.
"That's what we have to do. We're going to try to ask everybody else to tighten their belts and then go play the best game that they've played."
The Texans are unusually well-stocked in the front seven and equipped to absorb a blow of this magnitude.
Mercilus had a career-high dozen sacks last season and already has two this season. A former top overall pick no longer plagued by injuries, Clowney is healthy and manufacturing his best season. Gritty outside linebacker John Simon leads the Texans with 2.5 sacks and six quarterback hits.
"I think Whitney has proven what he can get done," Crennel said. "How will they try to protect us now that they don't have to worry about J.J.? A lot of teams, when they have to worry about J.J., it creates opportunities for other guys. Now we have to figure out how they're going to protect us, and then we're going to have to try to take advantage of that protection once we see it.
"Guys like Whitney, guys like Jadeveon, who has tremendous ability, we expect them all to show up. John Simon is a very consistent player. I don't think they can really underestimate our guys since we don't have J.J."
In the absence of Watt, Clowney is expected to command even more respect and double-team blocking attention from offenses. The former top overall pick from South Carolina has recorded nine tackles, one sack, three tackles for losses, four quarterback hits and deflected one pass this season.
Clowney acknowledged that life without Watt will be a major adjustment, though.
"It's going to be very weird," Clowney said. "That's one of our leaders. Everybody was looking forward to him playing this season. Other guys have to step up, including myself. I need to step up to help replace him.
"I'm looking for big things out of our front. Other guys around will have to pick it up for him. With that guy down, it hurts the team."
Clowney is primarily operating as a traditional defensive end in a three-point stance with his hand in the ground in Crennel's aggressive 3-4 scheme.
Clowney drew double-teams from the New England Patriots during a 27-0 loss and had a quiet game with just two tackles. He may get similar treatment this Sunday.
"Disruptive," Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey said of Clowney during a conference call with Houston reporters. "I know he's in a new world there being inside as an end and playing in some of the things that Romeo is asking him to do.
"It's not his first time inside and Romeo does a nice job of moving people around. They've got a lot of moving pieces trying to find mismatches. Extremely disruptive inside and playing very well."
Despite the subtraction of Watt, the Texans still have a strong pass rush with 10 sacks through three games. They have 23 quarterback hits and 13 tackles for losses.
The outside perception that the Texans' defense won't be formidable without Watt doesn't concern Clowney.
"They can think what they want," Clowney said. "I just worry about what's happening inside these walls. We're going to do all right. We're going to keep playing football."
Simon cautioned against falling into the natural tendency to try to overcompensate for the loss of a great player like Watt and create unintended holes in the defense by not playing within the scheme.
"If anyone tries to be a hero and just leaves their gap unattended or things like that, the teams we play are good enough to exploit it," Simon said. "If everyone does their one-eleventh, we're usually a pretty good defense."
The Texans haven't had to play without Watt in the past as he played in 83 consecutive games without missing a start.
The Texans are expected to increase the workload of former Rice standout defensive lineman Christian Covington at left defensive end with Watt out.
The Texans also signed veteran defensive end Antonio Smith to a one-year contract. Smith, 34, has 47 career sacks, but is an older player who still has to get in optimal condition.
"Definitely not a replacement, man," Smith said of being signed with Watt out. "No replacement at all. I'm just here to help the team out as best I can."
Meanwhile, Cushing is expected to return Sunday from a sprained medial collateral ligament that kept him out the past two games.
"He has some physicalness and some toughness," Crennel said. "If he's able to be there for us on Sunday, then I think that would be helpful, particularly when you lose J.J. Having that leadership in there will be good."
Even without Watt, it's not as if the Texans' defense is bereft of highly regarded athletes.
The defense includes seven former first-round draft picks in Cushing, Clowney, Mercilus, Wilfork and cornerbacks Kareem Jackson, Johanthan Joseph and Kevin Johnson.
The Texans rank first in the NFL in pass defense, allowing just 151.3 yards per game through the air.
"We just have to do more," Joseph said. "Obviously, get tighter in coverage. We can't change our mentality, have to still be aggressive, still take our chances and just play within the defense."
Crennel anticipates opposing offensive coordinators plotting new strategies to attack the Texans' defense in the wake of losing Watt.
"It is a chess match," Crennel said. "We're going to have to see what they're going to try to do and then we will try to counter it."
SERIES HISTORY: 29th regular-season meeting. Titans lead series, 15-13. The Texans are 7-7 at home against Tennessee. They swept the season series last year, including a 34-6 win in the second game last season on Dec. 27, 2015.
--Texans middle linebacker Brian Cushing has endured shredded knee ligaments and broken bones in his NFL past.
So, Cushing was more annoyed rather than extremely distraught about a Grade 2 sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee that he suffered during the Texans' season opener against the Chicago Bears.
Cushing wasn't surprised to miss just the past two full games after an initial diagnosis that he would be out four to six weeks. Cushing returned to practice Wednesday and the Texans are hopeful that the former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year could play as soon as Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.
"I didn't want to believe it would be four to six," Cushing said. "I'm not saying I'm all the way back. I know I felt good. I'm happy about the progress, that's for sure. I've been hurt too much in my career, in my opinion. Just excited to be back out there with the guys."
Regarded as the emotional leader of the defense, Cushing broke his leg and tore his fibular collateral ligament on a low block from Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles three years ago one year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
"It's really good to get him back," Texans head coach Bill O'Brien said. "He looked good. Moving around and looks like he's ramping it up to be able to play in the game."
The former first-round draft pick has battled a multitude of injuries during his eight NFL seasons, only playing in every game three times during his career.
"We are right on target," Cushing said. "We are moving in the right direction."