This Sunday, T.J. Watt will be returning to the place where his NFL career not only started but also took off. As was the case with last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers will travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns to open their season. It was there in Cleveland, last season, that the Steelers brass and the world got their first taste of what Watt had to offer. The outside linebacker flashed his raw athleticism, opening the season with two sacks and a leaping interception. While this game set the tone for his impressive rookie season, just what can the Steelers expect from Watt in his second year of action?
Watt certainly set the bar high for himself based off a performance that the Steelers were generally not accustomed to seeing from their rookie prospects. With seven sacks last season, Watt finished behind Kendrell Bell (9 sacks) and Keith Gary (7.5 sacks) for the most sacks by a rookie in franchise history. Only Cameron Heyward and Vince Williams finished with more sacks than Watt last season, and only Bengals pass rusher Carl Lawson (8.5 sacks) had more sacks as a rookie last season.
Looking at franchise history, Watt has the intangibles and athleticism to continue to place his name in the franchise record books in his sophomore year. If there are numbers he should set as benchmarks for himself, 14 is certainly a good place to start. The Steelers franchise record for most sacks in a player’s second season is 14 set by Keith Willis in 1983. While it would take an extraordinary season for Watt to post 14 sacks this season, the linebacker certainly has the potential to do so. For Watt, history is on his side as the Steelers have seen their pass rushing linebackers explode in production from their rookie to sophomore years.
LaMarr Woodley went from four sacks in his rookie season to 11.5 sacks in his sophomore year and Joey Porter jumped from two sacks to 10.5 from his rookie to sophomore year. The one advantage that Watt has over the linebackers he will be chasing is experience, neither Woodley or Porter started during their rookie season while Watt started all 15 games he featured in last season.
While Woodley and Porter hit their “rookie wall” during their sophomore years due to this being their first full time playing experience, Watt has already experienced the long and extensive grind of a full NFL season. Woodley finished the last four games of his sophomore year with zero sacks before turning it on in the playoffs after a bye week. Porter suffered the same, closing out the last four games of his sophomore season with just one and a half sacks. Watt has already gone through his own wall, a five-game stretch last season where he only notched one sack during that span.
With the knowledge of what it takes to grind out a full season as the team’s full-time starter and a growing skill set, Watt is in a better position than his predecessors to improve on his rookie numbers. Watt can get started on that by making a big impact against the Browns just as he did last season. The only difference, and one that will certainly please Watt, is that he will not be up against former Browns’ left tackle Joe Thomas, as the former Pro Bowler announced his retirement in the offseason. For Watt, the potential for a great sophomore year is there for the taking, all the linebacker has to do now is go out and get it, starting with the Browns this Sunday.