The metrics are easy. When T.J. Watt plays, the Pittsburgh Steelers are playoff contenders.
When they don’t, they’re in trouble. A lot of trouble.
Three months after signing one of the richest contracts given to a defender in NFL history, the perennial All-Pro outside linebacker somehow seems underpaid.
Stacking up 16 sacks – including 3 1/2 during Sunday’s heart-stopping 20-19 win over Baltimore that gave Pittsburgh’s scattershot season a much-needed jolt – will do that.
Imagine if he’d been healthy all year. Watt left two games because of injuries and sat out two others. The fact the Steelers are 0-3-1 in those games is not a coincidence. They are 6-2 when Watt’s No. 90 is in full flight coming off the edge, bringing a unique brand of chaos that galvanizes a defense that’s ordinary – or worse – when he’s standing on the sideline in sweatpants or watching at home from his couch.
Watt didn’t even practice last week after being placed into the COVID-19 protocol just 24 hours after a blowout loss to Cincinnati. He tuned into meetings virtually and attempted to stay game-ready by throwing on a pair of cleats and churning up the turf around the trees in his yard.
Lamar Jackson: “Watt is a great defender, great rusher”
Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson is a tad more elusive than your random pine or oak tree. Then again, Watt is a tad more frenetic than your random linebacker. Time and again two of the NFL’s best young players found themselves on a collision course.
Time and again Watt found a way to succeed where so many others have failed, including disrupting Jackson’s timing just enough to force a slightly errant pass on a 2-point conversion attempt with 12 seconds to go that swung the outcome of the game.
If Watt isn’t there, Jackson flips to a wide-open Mark Andrews for a score that likely would have all but ended Pittsburgh’s chances in the AFC North.
Only Watt was there, extending all 6 feet 4 inches of his frame in an effort to disrupt Jackson, whose sidearm throw glanced off Andrews’ hands and fell harmlessly to the Heinz Field turf.
“T.J. Watt, he’s a great defender, great rusher,” Jackson said. “He was doing his thing out there tonight.”
And doing it at a level rarely seen in NFL history. Watt has already tied James Harrison’s franchise record for sacks in a season and is on pace to break Michael Strahan’s single-season NFL record (22 1/2), remarkable considering Watt has basically missed the equivalent of three full games because of groin, hip and knee injuries and spent last week tearing up his yard while in the COVID-19 protocol.
“He’s unique,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He is unique and a collection of unique people. But you know, his production, his output is unique. And so, you know, 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.”