The first regular season game of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie T.J. Watt’s career was, I thought, a momentous occasion for him and for the franchise, in an obvious understatement. Their third outside linebacker drafted in the first round over a five-year span, much of the team’s future could be built on his shoulders.
It is noteworthy that he was tasked with going up against a future Hall of Famer in Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns for his first NFL action as well, so I wanted to focus my attention on his battles with the left tackle in particular.
The first play I want to look at comes early in the game. Facing a third and 11, this was an obvious pass-rushing situation. This round, however, was decisively won by the veteran, as he stoned the rookie and brought him to his knees. The All-22 (not included here) does show that Watt actually tossed him to the ground at the end of the play, but the throw was long gone by then.
Shortly after that, the Badger tried a less direct approach, this time dipping the shoulder and attempting to get up the arc around Thomas. He did actually accomplish that, but he was unable to keep his feet and spilled to the floor beneath the quarterback.
As you continue to watch him, you begin to understand why Alejandro Villanueva said that he was annoying to go up against. Watt just keeps working and attempting to win with different moves. On third early snap of the second quarter, he first gets stoned to the outside before trying to swim inside, even starting to win the angle, but the throw was off and he was picked up by the left guard as well.
Yet on the very next play he recorded his first pressure of the game—of his career—lining up wide from a nine-tech spot and using his acceleration and inside arm to dip under Thomas and get up the arc to pressure DeShone Kizer, who was able to step up into the pocket and make the throw.
Watt wasn’t done taking the veteran left tackle to the ground, either, as early in the second half he looked like a wrestler tossing him over his hip. It’s hard to distinguish exactly what happened here, but the end result was a 21-yard passing play, so that wasn’t good.
By this point, Watt had shown the veteran so many different things that it no doubt played into his favor when Kizer began to flush out through the near-side B Gap. He was able to hit a spin move back up the field that resulted in him recording the first sack of his career.
He obviously has work to do as a pass-rusher, but he also clearly has a lot to work with, and Watt was able to generally hold his own working against one of the best in the game. As long as he continues to get better, he can really be something.