While J.J. Watt quietly dressed across from Clowney minutes later, there was no mistaking the feeling that thisTexans squad, this Texans season, belongs to Clowney. The coach and quarterback drama can wait another week. Saturday's 27-14 triumph over the Raiders was Clowney's breakout moment, his reintroduction to the nation as an undeniable game-wrecker. The Texans drafted him No. 1 overall for days like this.
"Every time he makes a play, in the back of my mind I think about how they did him," cornerback A.J. Bouye said. "Not the organization but how everyone outside was saying things about him. I'm just happy he's showing y'all why he's the best in the league in my opinion. ... We miss J.J., but [Clowney's] just that good a presence."
Saturday's performance was vintage Clowney. He made one play that Texans fans will never forget and then made about a dozen more that didn't show up in the box score. Let's start with the one play.
Better than practice
Clowney's first-quarter interception of Raiders rookie quarterback Connor Cook was a case of film study and insane athleticism meeting in the middle. Clowney recognized from the formation that a screen pass could be coming. When running back Latavius Murray didn't try to cut block Clowney, his spidey senses tingled.
Knowing the play is great. But few humans on Earth who are Clowney's size could cut on a dime and change direction quickly enough to bat the ball in the air, eventually corralling the interception after hitting it twice in the air.
"We practice it every day! It usually goes the same, I tip it three times," Clowney joked. "I usually score though. I didn't get to score. I left that part out."
Teammate Antonio Smith told a different story, saying that Clowney wasn't catching anything when the team practiced their tip drill Thursday before the game.
"All week he was dropping them! Thursday, he dropped all the balls," Smith said before pausing with his pronounced Texas drawl. "But I'm sure glad he caught this one today."
The play, which ended with Clowney getting tackled around the foot by Raiders running back Latavius Murray, led to Houston's first touchdown of the day and a 10-0 lead. (Clowney's pick was eerily reminiscent of Watt's breakout moment, also an interception on Wild Card Weekend after the 2012 season.)
The early stops from the Houston defense allowed the Texans' offense to score 10 first quarter points on two scoring drives totaling 12 yards. This was Houston's recipe to win a playoff game with Brock Osweiler at quarterback and they achieved it. Osweiler put together a few nice drives, but the team ultimately had fewer yards than its yearly average. Slow down on the "Brock is Back" puff pieces; this was about the defense setting the tone early.
"That gave us a huge burst of energy, man," longtime Texans tackle Duane Brown said. "He's just a heck of an athlete, man. Just the way he moves man, to be so big and move like that. Nothing I've seen now surprises me. ... That was an incredible play, I just told him to pick his feet up there next time and get into the end zone."
Three years in the making
Clowney knew who was on the other side of the field.
"Man, every time you are going against someone in your own class you are trying to outperform him," Clowney said.
Back in 2014, there were legitimate draft debates regarding whether Clowney or Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack was the best pass rusher available. Clowney's strength and pure athleticism made him too hard to pass up for Houston. Mack went No. 5 overall. Clowney missed 15 games to injury in his first two seasons while Mack established himself as one of the league's preeminent defensive players. That rocky road only helped Clowney savor this moment more.
"It means a lot," Clowney said. "They picked me No. 1 because they saw something in me. Things didn't go well early in my career but I'm on the right track now. Things are coming together. I'm healthier and I'm playing good ball."
Clowney is a guy that teammates clearly root for. From Bouye to Smith to Mercilus, they all talked about how happy they were to see Clowney shine.
"I'm so proud of how far he's come and he's a big, big part of our team and our success," Brown said.
The Raiders' offense showed Clowney similar respect all game. They double-teamed Clowney constantly, but the Texans' coaches did a nice job moving Clowney around and using him on stunts to get free. A lot of Clowney's pressure came from when he lined up as a defensive tackle. He put his hands on Cook multiple times without taking him down, but essentially ruined those plays.
That's why you have to watch Clowney weekly to fully appreciate him. Only credited with one tackle, Clowney was Pro Football Focus' highest graded player in Saturday's game because he's so versatile. He makes an enormous impact in the running game while setting the edge. He gets hurries and hits. He collapses the pocket and runs down players much smaller than him.
"I've seen him chase down wide receivers and it just reminded me of The Freak (Jevon Kearse)," Smith said. "Wide receivers and running backs think they're gone and he'll chase them down. What did Amari Cooper run, a 4.3 at the Combine? (It was 4.35) You see (Clowney) chasing him? He was running about the same speed. Cooper went right out of bounds, didn't want to get that hit."
Clowney's hustle stands out when watching him in person.
"One thing about JD is he goes to the ball if that makes sense," coach Bill O'Brien explained. "He makes plays on the football even when he's getting after the quarterback or tackling the running back, there's a chance he could get the ball. He's got that knack."
A measure of revenge
It was surprising to hear so many Texans refer to the unfinished business of Houston's first loss to the Raiders, back in Week 11 in Mexico City. In that game, the Texans defense only allowed 106 yards through the first three quarters before Derek Carr saved the day. Cook, the third Raiders starter in as many weeks, was not about to pull off the same miracle Saturday.
"We thought we let them off the hook in Mexico," Smith said. "This game right here is like a revenge game -- without the lasers."
Clowney also brought up the first contest with Oakland unprompted, saying that "we smacked them the first game and it got away in the fourth quarter."
On Saturday, Clowney didn't think the defense needed to get too complicated.
"It don't take much. Just line up and hit them in the mouth," he said with a laugh.
Only 23 years old, the Texans have reason to expect Clowney to get better from here. He's just now refining his game after finally getting in a season's worth of practice.
Reality could hit this offense-challenged team next week on the road, but this performance and season from Clowney hint at biblical times to come on the Texans' defensive line.
"Usually I go home and watch film with my cousin," Bouye said. "And you see some of the stuff Clowney does during the game and just go, 'man'. And in the back of my mind, I imagine if 99 (Watt) was there on the outside opposite Clowney. That's scary."