American Football

Man of Steel: why Pittsburgh superstar T.J. Watt may be the NFL’s very best defender

By Stuart Dick

Published: 14:04, 9 December 2021

The Pittsburgh Steelers kept their play-off hopes alive in Week 13 with a 20-19 victory over the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens. The biggest factor in the win? An incredible seven-sack performance, led by T.J. Watt.

Watt is the brother of three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who currently resides in Arizona, and fullback Derek Watt, who is his teammate in Pittsburgh. The fifth-year edge rusher who led the league in sacks in 2020 and in forced fumbles in 2019 is one of the most feared defensive players in the NFL. His career day against the Ravens on Sunday – which included 3.5 sacks – illustrated exactly why.

Let’s take a deeper look at T.J. Watt, his impact on the Steelers’ prospects of a seventh Super Bowl title, and his chances of joining his brother J.J. as a Defensive Player of the Year award winner come season’s end.

Turn Down for Watt!

Watt’s first influential moment vs Baltimore on Sunday came midway through the first quarter when he rushed, unabated, toward a retreating Lamar Jackson, who floated an errant pass into the end zone and into the hands of Steelers All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Watt’s first sack of the game came later in the quarter – with 1:50 remaining – after the Steelers’ pass rush forced  Jackson to climb in the pocket, where Watt was waiting to bring the former MVP to the ground. A second came just before halftime, when Watt battled through the double-team block of lineman Ben Powers and running back Nate McCrary, to join teammate Chris Wormley (who had 2.5 sacks of his own) in hauling Jackson down. A third quarter bull-rush sent Ravens lineman Tyre Phillips into Jackson. Phillips was initially able to re-direct Watt to avoid the sack, though the relief was only momentary, as Watt’s relentless motor allowed him to pursue the play from the backside, and take down Jackson for a third time. Finally, a fourth takedown (3.5 of which were credited to Watt) came in the fourth quarter with the Steelers down a point, as Watt again bull-rushed Phillips into the backfield, disengaged, and sacked Jackson.

What they said about T.J. Watt…

Watt’s brother J.J. was one of the first on social media to praise his level of performance, pointing out that T.J., despite missing (to that point) roughly a quarter of the Steelers’ season, is “STILL leading the league in sacks by 2 whole sacks”, and endorsed his brother’s award candidacy with a “#DPOY”.

Teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick, speaking during a Monday media call, also had his say on Watt’s outstanding performances:

“He’s definitely deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s been robbed of that the past two years, so hopefully he can get that this year.”

Head coach Mike Tomlin: “He’s unique (in) a collection of unique people… His production and output is unique, so we shouldn’t be surprised that his method or his process is unique. His level of effort, his attention to detail, his intensity, all are unique.”

Watt’s season so far

  • 47 tackles, 35 solo
  • 16 sacks
  • Four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries

In what has been a disappointing campaign for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ultra-competitive AFC North, T.J. Watt is having an incredible – and potentially record-breaking – season.

The NFL’s 2020 NFL sack leader is on course to claim the 2021 title as well – again, despite missing more than two games due to injury and a positive COVID-19 test. Watt has five multi-sack games this season, against the Buffalo Bills (2 sacks), the Green Bay Packers (2), Seattle Seahawks (2), Chicago Bears (3) and, of course, the Baltimore Ravens. In the games that Watt has played, he’s only failed to record a sack against the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos. With five games remaining on the schedule, Watt is seven sacks away from breaking the NFL’s single-season sack record for a single regular season. As he gets cracks at the Cleveland Browns (6th most sacks allowed), Tennessee Titans (8th most) and Baltimore (most) again before the end of the season, it’s hard not to like his chances.

For good measure, Watt is also tied for third in the NFL for forced fumbles with four.

Player Profile

College: University of Wisconsin

Drafted: First round (#30 overall) in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Key Career Stats

  • 72 Games Played
  • 277 tackles, 203 solo
  • 65.5 sacks
  • 21 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries
  • Four interceptions

Trent Jordan (‘T.J.’) Watt, brother of three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, began his football journey at Pewaukee High School. His high school play earned him three-star rating as a college recruit. His college career at the University of Wisconsin – where J.J. also starred – began as a tight end.

After a serious knee injury curtailed his 2014 campaign, Watt returned to the field in 2015 after a protracted absence from the field. Prior to that season, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst moved Watt, now redshirt freshman, from tight end to the defensive side of the ball. A star was born.

During the 2016 season – Watt’s only season as a starter in college – T.J. played in 14 games, recorded 63 tackles, 11.5 sacks, an interception and a touchdown. That performances was good enough to vault him into the first-round of the 2017 NFL Draft, where he was selected #30 overall by the Steelers.

Watt hit the ground running in the NFL, with a solid seven-sack season during his rookie campaign. That, however, was only the beginning. In his second season in the league, 2018, Watt announced himself as one of the best pass rushers in football, nearly doubling his rookie-year tally, with 13 sacks. He’s kept it up ever since, with 14.5 sacks in 2019 and 15 in 2020. His 2020 sack was tops in the league, as were his 23 tackles for loss (TFL) and 41 quarterback hits.

With five games remaining in 2021 Watt already has a new career high in sacks (16.0). Despite missing more than two games, Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5 sacks seems well in reach.

Award prospects

Defensive Player of the Year – 7/4 (+175) – William Hill

After his spectacular  performance against the Ravens, T.J. Watt is now the front runner for the Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) award. The two-time First-Team All-Pro will have to fend off challenges from Dallas Cowboys defensive back Trevon Diggs, who’s poised to become just the second player since 2007 to record double-digit interceptions (he currently has 9, two of which he’s returned for touchdowns) and Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, who’s recorded 14 sacks himself, and also has 15 tackles for loss.

However, as great that those two have been, Watt is on course to become the second member of his family to be named DPOY, joining J.J. who won the award in 2012, 2014 and 2015.

Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl odds – 100/1 (+10000) – Betfair

The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently a long shot for Super Bowl success. This makes sense, of course, as they must first meet the challenge of qualifying for the playoffs. At6-6-1, they currently sit third in the difficult AFC North – in which every team has a .500-or-better record – behind Baltimore and the Cincinnati Bengals.

If the season ended today, Pittsburgh would miss out on the playoffs. They must not only keep winning, but also will need teams ahead of them to slip up in order to reach the postseason. Those long Super Bowl odds above reflect this situation.

With the the NFL’s 21st-best scoring offense and 21st-best scoring defense, the Steelers don’t quite cut the figure of a Super Bowl contender. If Pittsburgh is going to lift a record seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy, something dramatic will have to happen.

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