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After 'dark days,' will J.J. Watt lead Texans to new heights in '18?

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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- The ugliest day of Houston Texans training camp ended with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel ducking into the team's cafeteria to conduct an interview as torrential rain poured outside. The team had spent more than 90 minutes toiling in a storm that soaked The Greenbrier resort practice fields, which was why it was all the more amusing for Crennel to find defensive end J.J. Watt sitting quietly by himself at a table inside the expansive room. Watt calmly nibbled on some grilled chicken, all the while grinning at his drenched coach. Crennel could only chuckle as Watt enjoyed his timely day off, saying, "It must be nice to be you."

Crennel and Watt both understood something that would be even better than a little levity on that dreary day nearly three weeks ago: The moment when their defense is back at full strength. No team in the league has a better chance of improving its fortunes if that actually happens for the Texans. Houston finished tied for last in the AFC South with a 4-12 record in 2017. That same team should compete for the division title if Watt and his fellow defenders return to the dominant form that was their trademark before he succumbed to the injury bug.

They need Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who has only played in eight games over the past two seasons. They need Whitney Mercilus, a versatile outside linebacker who missed 11 games last year after tearing a pectoral in the same game where Watt fractured his left leg (a Week 5 loss to Kansas City). Add those two to a front seven that also includes Pro Bowl outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney -- who didn't play a full 16-game season until 2017 (he missed 17 games from 2014-16) -- and it's not hard to see what the Texans could be with better health. As Watt said, "We all have to be on the same page. But when it's clicking, it will be clicking."

"We'll definitely have to build that chemistry again -- how we rush, how we use our games," said Mercilus, who earned second-team All-Pro honors in 2016. "And it will be friendly competition. We will be a three-headed monster trying to get as many sacks as we can and create as much havoc as we can. Once we get all three back on the same field, it will be a special thing."

Mercilus and Watt both acknowledged their frustrations with watching the Texans' 2017 season implode while they rehabilitated their injuries. That collective disappointment became even more unsettling when rookie QB Deshaun Watson tore the ACL in his right knee during a non-contact drill in practice last November. Watson already had electrified the NFL by throwing 19 touchdown passes in his first seven games. The belief was that the Texans finally had found a quarterback to go along with a defense that ranked No. 1 in the league in 2016.

Today the Texans' hopes rest on two key things happening. One is Watson picking up where he left off last season. The other is that defense being nowhere near as miserable as the bunch that surrendered 27.2 points per game in 2017, more than any other team in the league. Along with the return of Watt and Mercilus -- and the addition of safety Tyrann Mathieu -- the Texans also are encouraged by the sight of Crennel running their defense again.

Crennel had been Houston's defensive coordinator from 2014-16 before moving to the role of assistant head coach last season. He replaces Mike Vrabel, who became the Tennessee Titans' head coach in January.

"I'm very happy to have RAC back," Watt said. "I love Romeo Crennel. He's the man. I got to play for (current Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator) Wade Phillips early in my career and now I get Romeo back, so I'm very lucky. RAC has so much experience. He knows what he's doing. He does let me play out there and have a little fun, so I'm really looking forward to playing for him again and I know most of the guys are."

"If we can be disciplined enough to play our fundamentals -- particularly when the going gets tough -- then that will give us the best chance to compete," Crennel said. "So I talk a lot about fundamentals -- being where you're supposed to be, taking correct steps and effort. You have to give effort as a defense. That's what it's about. Hustling and running to the football."

Watt's effort on a football field has never been an issue, but there are plenty of questions about whether he can play at the level to which the Texans have been accustomed. He was the best defensive player in football when the 2015 season ended, a one-man wrecking crew who had been selected first-team All-Pro in four of his first five years in the league. That was before he underwent two operations on his back in 2016 and missed 13 games. Then came last season, when he thought he'd put all that disappointment behind him until Houston's medical staff carted him off the field in that loss to Kansas City.

Watt hadn't missed a game in the first five years of his career. He also had two separate seasons where he amassed 20.5 sacks (2012 and '14) and another when he totaled 17.5 (2015). He said he feels "really good now" and that "after everything I've been through, I can honestly say I've come out of the other side better." However, Watt also acknowledged that he's been challenged in ways he's never experienced at this level.

"You go through a lot of different things," Watt said. "Obviously, with the first injury (the back), I hadn't missed any games in my career. So you're going through a difficult time. You want to get back on the field as quickly as possible. Then you go through rehab -- and you work so hard to come back -- and then you break your leg. So you're (thinking about doing) all that work and now I have to go through all that hard work (again). I'm not going to lie and say it was all roses. I had some very dark days."

Unlike Mercilus -- who has been practicing since April, but has missed time this month with a hamstring injury -- Watt's recovery has been treated with a bit more precaution. He primarily worked off to the side during spring workouts before being cleared for training camp.

"He needs to knock some of that rust off," said Crennel after that rainy practice on Aug. 3. "They're managing him and not throwing too much at him. We don't want to overload him at this stage. We just want him to get comfortable with his belief that he's come back from his injury. All players who get injured don't know if they're really back until they can stick their feet in the ground and go. That's coming around for him."

The Texans find themselves in a familiar place once again -- playing the "what if" game. A few years ago, they were wondering what their defense could be once Clowney overcame the knee problems that plagued him early in his career. Then they were wondering what they could be if they found a reliable quarterback until Watson arrived last season. This year the discussion centers on what the Texans could be if everything finally falls into place.

As far as the defense is concerned, Watt stressed that they need to keep things simple.

"We have to do it together," he said. "We have a lot of guys, but it's a team game."

The Texans should know that lesson all too well by now. The key to their success this season is tied to whether the team -- and most notably that defense -- can once again be everything it needs to be.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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