T.J. Watt recorded seven sacks during his rookie season as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting right outside linebacker. But his biggest sack of the year actually came from off the left edge. It was the waning moments of another close victory against the Baltimore Ravens, and he chased down Joe Flacco, stripping the ball out of bounds, which resulted in a clock run-off that ended the game.
The Steelers are hinting early in OTAs that they might show interest in making their pass-rushers more ambidextrous this year, so to speak, giving them more opportunities to rush from both sides of the field. This is something that we have already discussed.
But what Watt is really looking for this offseason is just making a bigger impact with the opportunities that he gets, no matter where they come on the field.
The second-year player told Joe Rutter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that “as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, you’re meant to be a splash player. I want to make more splash plays”. He did have some splash as a rookie with his seven sacks, forced fumble, and an interception—plus seven passes defensed—but he can certainly deliver more than that, and the team is counting on it.
The Steelers have swung for the fences with first-round picks at outside linebacker three times in recent years. They’ve struck out once with Jarvis Jones. Bud Dupree right now can be considered a three-year pop fly that we’re still waiting to see come down. Watt’s early progression is promising, but we must see him build upon his solid start and do even more than he has already done.
One need only look at his predecessor to see what excellence can be like at the position. While he may have supplanted James Harrison a year ago, the latter’s performance during his heyday is still the recent benchmark, the standard of play, for his position.
From 2007 through the 2011 season, Harrison produced 54 sacks and forced 27 fumbles, picking off four passes and registering a safety. That was in addition to his 437 tackles. That is remarkable play for a 3-4 outside linebacker, and Watt frankly would be lucky to have one season close to Harrison’ 2008 campaign.
One area in which he can make a bigger difference than Harrison is in coverage. The latter only had 26 passes defensed, plus eight interceptions, over the course of his career, and Watt certainly looks to have the potential to better those numbers, averaging around 10 passes defensed per season a couple of them being interceptions. Of course, it’s unlikely he’ll ever had a 100-yard interception return touchdown in the Super Bowl.
It doesn’t really matter whether that production comes on the right side or the left. It has to come from somewhere. And frankly what we see in OTAs is often different from what we see by the time September comes along. Wherever he lines up, he’s angling to make a bigger splash going forward.