Big Wisconsin Badgers battle ahead in Bears game
Bears offensive right tackle Gabe Carimi and Texans defensive left end J.J. Watt both were first-round picks out of Wisconsin in 2011.
Sunday night they'll square off as members of opposing 7-1 teams that have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
The 6-foot-5, 295-pound Watt has enjoyed much more success so far than his 6-7, 316-pound former teammate.
"J.J. Watt is a heck of a player," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Nonstop motor. He plays hard every down. It's one thing to play hard — you don't have to have a lot of talent to play hard — but he plays hard with elite talent. It'll be a big challenge for us."
The 11th overall pick two years ago has been mentioned as an early candidate for defensive player of the year and leads the NFL with 10½ sacks.
"We have to be aware of where he's at," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. "He lines up in a lot of different positions. (Texans defensive coordinator) Wade (Phillips) does a great job of moving him around and using his athletic ability to their advantage.
"We've gone against some pass rushers this year, and I think we've done a better-than-average job, so hopefully we can continue with it."
Carimi was selected 18 picks after Watt but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of his rookie season.
Like most of the Bears' offensive linemen, he has been inconsistent in his first full season as a starter. But he will play a major role if the Bears are to prevent Watt him from getting after Cutler.
"Gabe probably didn't have one of his better games (Sunday at Tennessee), and I think he would probably be the first one to tell you that," offensive coordinator Mike Tice said.
"But he is a very astute player for a young guy. (Last week) was a young player working through some things and learning. There is not the consistency there with some of our guys that we'd like to see, and that's what hurts us."
Carimi has struggled in pass protection but dominated at times as a run blocker. He said he hasn't graded out as well as he expected.
"A couple of weeks ago I felt I was playing pretty good ball," Carimi said. "Last game was kind of edgy. But (it's just) halfway through the season and we're moving in the right direction."
Watt leads the Texans with 58 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and 10 pass breakups.
"He's a very smart player, so we're able to move him around and do some different things with him," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "He started playing at a really high level last year in the playoffs and it's just continued.
"He's one of those guys that finds a way to gets his hands on the ball, whether it's tipping a ball or getting a fumble, and he makes a lot of plays that are the difference in winning and losing."
Watt is the first player since Jared Allen in 2007 to have 10 sacks and 10 pass breakups in the same season, and he has done it in just eight games.
"It's not like facing any other defensive lineman," Tice said. "He's one of the top players, if not the top player, we've played against this year.
"He uses his arms well. He uses his leverage extremely well. He's going to take turns going up and down the line trying to make plays on us."
Because the Texans play a 3-4 defense, Watt will spend a lot of time lined up across from Bears right guard Lance Louis, but Carimi also will be responsible for containing his fellow Wisconsin native.
"J.J.'s a great player," Carimi said. "I played a lot against him (in practice) at Wisconsin. I'm always happy when a Wisconsin guy's doing well, but now I get to block him.
"So now he can't do well against us, obviously, but I always wish him luck.
"We know each other well, so he has the same advantage (as I do). So it's just all evened out."
Carimi said he doesn't have any secret moves he can spring on Watt.
"I don't know if offensive linemen have moves," he said. "We just have to defend moves."
Against Watt, there's plenty to defend.
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