2020 Season Prediction: Can T.J. Watt improve on 2019?

    Pittsburgh Steelers' edge rusher T.J. Watt was brilliant in 2019, earning an All-Pro nomination. But can he make another jump forward in 2020?

    Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt has proven he is far from being known just as “J.J.’s little brother.” The Steelers linebacker emerged as one of the NFL’s premier defenders, spending a lot of time in the backfield of opposing teams. He notched 14.5 sacks en route to his first All-Pro selection and was in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year throughout the 2019 season. Watt comes into 2020 with the third-highest odds to win the award this season. While Watt has demonstrated that he is among the game’s best edge rushers, the fourth-year linebacker could just be tapping into his superior potential. What could a realistic prediction Watt’s 2020 season look like?

    Can Watt get over 15 sacks in 2020?

    During the 2019 season, Watt and fellow edge rusher Bud Dupree had the second-most combined sacks by a duo in franchise history with 26, finishing just behind James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who combined for 27.5 sacks in the team’s 2008 Super Bowl-winning season.

    In 2020 offensive lines will have more pass rushers to worry about when they face Pittsburgh. Stephon Tuitt is returning from a season-ending pectoral injury and will require a lot of attention of his own off the edge, as will veteran defensive lineman Cam Heyward. Looking at Pittsburgh’s schedule, their first four games are against teams who’ve had mediocre to poor offensive line play. They head to MetLife Stadium in Week 1 to take on the New York Giants, who are starting two rookies at both tackle positions in Andrew Thomas and Matt Peart. With the Steelers high-ranking secondary among the best in the league, they could help provide coverage sacks to the defensive front if the Giants receivers can’t find ways to get open.

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    That matchup is followed by their home opener against the Denver Broncos, whose issues at both tackle positions have been the biggest question mark of their off-season. Bad offensive line play and a great defense is a horrible combination for quarterbacks, especially young quarterbacks like Daniel Jones and Drew Lock. Pittsburgh then plays host to the Houston Texans, where Deshaun Watson has been running for his life the past three seasons. Then, the Steelers will take a flight to Tennessee and take on the Titans, who gave up the second-most sacks in the NFL last year and lost star right tackle Jack Conklin to the Cleveland Browns in free agency.

    Going up against those teams in the first month of the season is a big advantage. If Watt can go into Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles with anywhere between four and six sacks, that momentum can carry forward and last nearly all season. Given that opposing offenses will have to deal with all of the aforementioned pass rushers of the Steelers’ front seven, I’d say that is a doable feat for the former Wisconsin Badger.

    Projected sacks: 16

    It is unlikely that Watt can get back to eight forced fumbles in 2020

    After a season where he forced an absurd eight fumbles, it is hard to imagine we see that same kind of superhuman production from that statistical standpoint. That said, Watt lived in the backfield last season and was able to force fumbles on both quarterbacks and ball carriers alike. If he keeps getting home, there’s going to be instances where the ball is put on the turf.

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    That Week 1 game against Daniel Jones could get Watt off to a very good start. Jones fumbles the ball a massive 18 times last season. If Watt can get after Jones in Week 1 he could have one or two forced fumbles in Week 1 alone.

    Projected forced fumbles: Five

    Can Watt up his tackle count this season?

    60 tackles is a solid number to round to when we think of elite outside linebackers. Watt finished with 55 last season, and while some may point to the return of Tuitt or the drafting of Alex Highsmith for reasons to believe that number could go down, they will only create more holes and opportunities for Watt to thrive.

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    Watt’s career-high in tackles came in 2018 when he registered 64. He had 54 in 2017 and 55 last season, so that is a realistic place to assume his floor. The Steelers will want his focus to be on sacks and forcing fumbles, but strong tackling is something that Watt can bring to the table as well.

    Projected tackles: 60

    What Could Prevent A Strong Season From Watt?

    The only thing that can hold Watt back from a strong season in 2020 would be some sort of injury. Watt has only missed one of his 33 career games, but anything can happen. In terms of certain guys returning from injury or the addition of others through the draft or free agency, Watt is still the best edge rusher in the Steelers locker room; that won’t be changing anytime soon

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