When the Pittsburgh Steelers submitted their first-round selection in 2017, they were banking on potential as any other team does. They saw what a rookie could grow into, but it helped that his last name already had history attached to it: Watt. T.J. Watt, to be specific – the younger brother of All-Pro Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
No one realized, then, that young T.J. was on the path to becoming a stellar defender like his brother. Some doubted him. Others thought his name garnered unnecessary hype, and some thought he’d never remove himself from his brother’s shadow. But many scouts felt optimistic that the 6’4”, 252 lbs pass rusher from Wisconsin would translate to an exceptional level of play.
Those scouts were right. T.J. Watt is Pittsburgh’s next legendary defender.
The roots of the younger Watt
Entering the 2016 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were optimistic about their defense continuing the tradition of being successful. As usual, the Steelers found themselves on top of the AFC North with an 11-5 record, pushing all the way to the AFC Conference Championship game. There, they lost to the New England Patriots to a score of 36-17.
Despite having a powerhouse offense, the Steelers could not keep up with Tom Brady and company. New England showed out, shutting Pittsburgh out until the second half. If history has taught the NFL anything, it is that beating the Patriots means sacking and pressuring Tom Brady, nonstop. The Steelers could not do that. Even with the talent of the well-known James Harrison, along with young defenders in Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo, Arthur Moats, and Jarvis Jones, the Steelers did nothing to pressure Brady.
It was at this moment that Pittsburgh needed an injection of youth combined with talent at their EDGE position. Most notably, Harrison was aging and Jarvis Jones, the former first-round pick out of Georgia, was failing fast. The Steelers knew they had to make a move to improve their front seven.
T.J. Watt was seemingly hidden in the shadow of his aforementioned brother, especially considering they both went to Wisconsin. While J.J. dominated the NFL, T.J. was simply a tight end prospect at Wisconsin that lost his first season, 2014, to a knee injury. Missing spring practice to another knee injury, he switched to outside linebacker and his career began to take off. He played in all 13 games in 2015, showing incredible potential. Eventually, 2016 rolled around, and Watt became a 14 game starter.
Watt eventually finished his career with a stellar season, voted a second-team All-American, first-team All-Big Ten, and a two-time Academic All-Big Ten. After missing time with an injury early in his career, Watt took advantage of the chance to jump to the pros and not risk any further collegiate injuries. He declared and proved to be a polarizing prospect by some considering his name, injury history, and lack of starting experience. But the tools and consistencies were there to appreciate.
Watt possessed ideal length, strength, and foot quickness for short-area movement to excel. Sharing the same last name as an NFL All-Pro didn’t help his case, either, for those that thought his name clouded his value. However, he displayed the traits consistently and even trained with his brother to embrace the grind of a successful player. Fast forward to draft day, and Watt became a Steeler.
Boasting ideal traits as an athlete, Watt hasn’t taken long to take off in the right direction.
Since joining the Steelers, T.J. Watt has been a menace of a player as the team had hoped after selecting him 30th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. In his rookie season, T.J. notched 52 total tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble. His promise was on display with every play and highlight he generated. But year two took the cake. T.J. notched 68 tackles, 13 sacks, and 6 forced fumbles, with 21 quarterback hits too. With 20 sacks over his first two seasons, he set a franchise record.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 18, 2018
Watt is becoming a monster of a defender. In watching the film, fans can see his development from year one to year two. He utilizes his hands well but possesses a fantastic balance for the position. In his rush, whether he’s speed rushing, working a counter, or running the arc, he executes the lean necessary to pressure the edge quickly.
In addition, Watt has the power, mostly driven by his strong lower body, to collide with offensive linemen and bull rush his way to the QB. As seen below, Watt maintains his arc, dips his inside shoulder into the opposing tackle, then drives his legs with speed to push the arc into the passer, close enough for a swipe.
Sack No. 9. Arguably his most dominant game of the season came in Jacksonville, at least as a pass rusher. Two blockers and it just doesn’t matter. Watt has established himself as one of the best pass rushers in the league at knocking the ball out. pic.twitter.com/YxFzuZg2Xq
— Josh Carney (@JCarney_Sports) January 11, 2019
Similarly, the chop club rip gets him to the backfield quickly, to force a fumble with his hand on the ball.
— Willie Cashmore (@WillieCashmore) July 11, 2019
Probably my favorite play from T.J.’s film is the one below. Against the New Orleans Saints high-powered offense, Watt is in a wide two-point stance. His initial step, with his left foot, goes outward to sell a more upfield rush. But he quickly uses ankle flexion in his right foot to step inward with the same speed. As the right tackle bursts out of his stance into his kick slide, Watt generates his momentum. The tackle then throws his hands up and into Watt, who dips his shoulder into the tackle’s arms. This lets him drive by the tackle, selling a bull rush, but sneaking under to sack an unsuspecting QB Drew Brees.
12th sack of the season for @_TJWatt came in New Orleans. Makes that inside shoulder small against Will Clapp by dipping underneath without losing any speed. This seems to be Watt’s go-to, and it’s incredibly tough to block, especially with his speed and athleticism. pic.twitter.com/4kV8X4VVNq
— Josh Carney (@JCarney_Sports) January 11, 2019
The fact of the matter is T.J. Watt is on pace to become a stellar Steelers legend. Starting his career averaging 10 sacks per season is impressive thus far and already places him in elite company with the most sacks in his first two years. But this season provides a rare opportunity to make an even greater leap.
This offseason, the Steelers invested in their defense by drafting Michigan linebacker Devin Bush tenth overall. Bush was a premier player at the position, and arguably the best linebacker that declared. His range and ability to rush the passer from the middle is well-documented and valuable.
Additionally, Pittsburgh signed linebacker Mark Barron, who plays a significant role as a nickel-base linebacker/safety hybrid that can complement Bush. Speed in the interior, especially from a blitzing standpoint, can work wonders. Adding in Vince Williams, who started in 24 games over the course of the last two years and there’s a solid core in the middle.
On the perimeter, the Steelers acquired Joe Haden, who is currently slotted in as the team’s top cornerback. And while former first-round pick Artie Burns has been a disappointment, the Steelers ensured that they bolstered that position with the signing of Steven Nelson and drafting of Justin Layne. Adding in a rising Sean Davis at free safety, and last year’s first-rounder, Terrell Edmunds, growing into a dynamic, strong safety, opposing offenses have plenty of planning to do heading into each week. Watt has the potential to excel off the edge, notching tackles for loss, sacks, and definitely QB hits or pressures that will result in turnovers by his teammates.
The games that matter
Looking into the 2019 Steelers schedule, the Steelers will need to stop some powerful offenses. Kicking the season off with New England Patriots, Watt will figure to be an important factor in that game. They’ll eventually play the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals back to back. Both teams are coming off of terrible seasons in which their quarterbacks were lost. Can those guys withstand the heat from Watt?
All in all, they’ll play the Cleveland Browns twice, the Chargers, the Colts, the Jets, and Cardinals. Every one of these teams has either a capable, dangerous QB or a young one with a dynamic arm. Watt is going to have to make tons of noise to ensure they dominate this year.
Ultimately, the benefit from the 2019 additions to the roster should pay off. Watt is a growing pass rusher with exceptional athleticism and physical traits for the EDGE position. With multiple alignments to confuse opposing offenses, the Steelers defense could become a top unit easily this season. However, it is up to TJ Watt to polish his game and take the leap to stardom for this defense, and team, to become elite.
With a rare instance of tougher divisional opponents, including a hyped-up favorite Cleveland Browns and tough as nails Baltimore Ravens team, the Steelers taking the division or even reaching the playoffs is even tougher. But fortunately, Watt is tailor-made for this chance to be the difference in Pittsburgh. Watch for Watt to break out early in 2019 and continue his trajectory into Pittsburgh Steelers lore.
Felix Davila is a writer for PFN covering the NFL Draft. He is also the editor for PFN’s AFC North coverage. You can follow him @DavilaFootball on Twitter.