Falcons’ Jake Matthews remembers his first encounter with J.J. Watt

FLOWERY BRANCH – In the summer of 2014, Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews had his first encounter with defensive lineman J.J. Watt.

Matthews, who was taken sixth overall in the NFL draft, was a rookie, and the Falcons had a joint practice with the Texans in the steaming summer Houston heat.

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Making sure that Watt, who announced his retirement this week, doesn’t destroy the game Sunday will be the X-factor when the Falcons (5-10) play the Cardinals (4-11) at 1 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Watt, a three-time defensive player of the year, played for the Texans from 2011-20. He’s played the past two seasons with the Cardinals.

“I just have a lot of respect for the guy for how long he’s done it and how good of player he is,” Matthews said. “The way he’s battled through stuff. We have a lot of respect for him going into this game. It’s exciting. It will be a good challenge.”

Watt leads the Cardinals in sacks with 9.5.

One of the big moments of the joint practice in 2014 was Matthews going against Watt in one-on-one drills. Matthews held his own against Watt.

“Just looking back and playing him multiple times,” Matthews said. “We understand that he was one of the better ones to ever do it. It’s a little surreal. It makes me feel a little old.”

Matthews, who was set to start at right tackle as a rookie, reflected on those first encounters with Watt.

“It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it’s almost been a decade,” Matthews said. “It’s pretty crazy how time has gone by. It was big, eye-opening experience, as I remember.

“Because being from Houston, growing up there, I’d seen him drafted there and played there for a while. I was getting my shot. I’m in, what, my third week of practicing in the NFL, (and) going up against him one-on-one was really good work. I learned a lot. He’s one of the best to do it.”

In the exhibition game that followed the joint practices, Falcons lineman Sam Baker suffered a season- and career-ending knee injury. Offensive line coach Mike Tice broke the news to Matthews at halftime that he was the new starting left tackle, and he’s been there since.

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule

Sept. 11 Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18 Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20

Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15

Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14

Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17

Oct. 30 Falcons 37, Panthers 34 OT

Nov. 6 Chargers 20, Falcons 17

Nov. 10 Panthers 25, Falcons 15

Nov. 20 Falcons 27, Bears 24

Nov. 27 Commanders 19, Falcons 13

Dec. 4 Steelers 19, Falcons 16

BYE WEEK

Dec. 18 Saints 21, Falcons 18

Dec. 24 Ravens 17, Falcons 9

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD