It seems as though it has been a while now since the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a defensive player who was not only very good on the field but off of it as well outside of Cameron Heyward. There’s a reason he has been their defensive captain for a while. Of course Ryan Shazier was already settling into that role by the time he was injured as well.
But it appears that the Steelers are finally seeing the emergence of their second true leader of the defensive unit this offseason in third-year outside linebacker T.J. Watt, their first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Posting 20 sacks over his first two seasons—the most in franchise history—he is primed to continue to grow both in his game and in his leadership, something his teammates have observed as well.
Take his running mate, for example. Bud Dupree said of Watt to Jeremy Fowler, “Cam has always been a leader, and T.J. is stepping into that role now as well”. He added that there “always has to be more than one leader on the team. T.J. has the personality to be energetic, talkative to the group. He has what it takes to do it. People respect him”.
Even in this era of the defense, it’s hard for a player to gain that kind of respect by his third season. You really have to be special to do that, but Watt has done that and then some. He admits that he is not nearly as talkative as his older brothers, but the more he grows comfortable with himself and his stability in the team and in the league, the more vocal he has become.
The difference, I think, has been notable this offseason in the way that he has spoken, the few times he has talked to the media. He speaks with much more ownership over the defense, rather than just a piece of the puzzle, as though he knows that the unit’s success or failure is his own.
Not every great player is a great leader. Look at Antonio Brown. And not every great leader is a great player. I would argue that William Gay was great in his role as a leader, but he was never great—albeit good, and scrappy—as a player on the field.
Watt is developing into both, at the same time. Perhaps the Steelers’ first-round pick, Devin Bush, will be on an even more accelerated trajectory toward both ends. That’s certainly what they are hoping, and man, would it be nice to have a leader at the mack again.
If they can create a triumvirate with Heyward, Watt, and Bush as their nucleus and heart of the defense, that’s really something to build around, and something that other players will gravitate toward and be inspired by. There is a ripple effect that isn’t necessarily seen but more felt when a leader steps up, and that’s something the defense could desperately use. For Watt, his teammates are already ready to embrace him on that particular pedestal.