It might not have seemed like it until at the very end of the game, but Pittsburgh Steelers rookie starting outside linebacker T.J. Watt is coming off arguably his best game of the season as a pass rusher. It certainly helps that he capped off the night with a walk-off strip sack in chase-down fashion, but it was so much more than that.
While I plan to have a more nuanced discussion about this topic in a film study later on in the week, I just wanted to briefly talk about this point, especially in consideration of those who may be finding themselves disappointed in his productivity in this area, in spite of the fact that he is asked to drop into coverage quite a bit.
Working against second-year left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who was a top-10 pick in last year’s draft, the Steelers’ own first-round pick more than held his own, and it wasn’t just against the pass. While the run defense overall was pretty terrible, not much of it was on Watt, who recorded two run stops, including a loss of four yards.
But it was his pass rush that was the shining moment for him. While the Steelers refused to characterize J.J. Watt’s younger brother was ‘raw’ despite having fewer than two full seasons’ worth of experience at the position, it is clear that he has still been learning, though at an accelerated pace, and Sunday’s game was something of a positive report card revealing his progress.
His one sack was impressive and important, showing incredible closing speed as well as the savvy of knowing to extend his arm to reach for the football to jar it loose, but that was far from his only win on the night.
And it might be worth noting, by the way, that that particular rush came from the left side, where he has worked before earlier in the season, but the bulk of his playing time has of course come from the right side.
But he had several other hurries working against Stanley at left tackle, including a hit or two on Joe Flacco, and one that forced an incomplete pass on third down. This sort of display of consistent success on the pass rush is exactly what the Steelers need.
And exactly what they have been looking for in the draft in recent years. Pittsburgh has used three of their first-round draft picks since 2013 looking for their next great pass rusher, and Watt is by far the most likely candidate out of the three, if he continues to progress as he has.
The young man can have a very bright future ahead of him. He already has the second-most sacks by a rookie in team history with six, trailing only Kendrell Bell’s nine, a feat that linebacker never came close to repeating. But I sense that Watt will not regress. He should be the next outside linebacker to record double-digit sacks in a season—plus a couple of interceptions to boot.