When the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been at its best in recent years, it has been when the group had at least one player who was both a superior athlete and a student of the game. Combining those qualities with experience allowed them to become wildcards who would enable themselves to get into positions to make difference-making plays.
Those players were Troy Polamalu—a future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to be sure—and more recently, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was showing great potential in coverage and in forcing fumbles. He continues to inspire even though he is no longer, at least currently, on the field.
Though it’s more difficult to do from the edge, perhaps T.J. Watt can be that next risk-taking difference-maker. He can get the sacks, and can tomahawk the ball out. His six forced fumbles last season are tied for the third-most in team history since at least 1993.
But he feels there’s even more that he can do this year to make a difference, and he sees it as a part of his natural progression as a football player. “To be able to show the hard work and get the respect—I say respect a lot—but to be able to have these guys out here trust me, just to be able to make a play” is important, he said.
“I think early on, you just don’t want to make a mistake. Then you get into year two and then you can kind of take more chances, and in year three, you want to take a lot more chances and try and make more splash. But you also have to know what you’re jeopardizing when you take those chances, so I think it’s all calculated risks”.
Of course that doesn’t only concern getting after the passer. It’s also about shooting gaps when you get a read on a play in the run game. It’s jumping a route on a throw that you see developing because you’ve done your homework and you know where the ball is going to go through your studies and your experience.
I don’t know what kind of statistical line he is going to put up this year—13 sacks and six forced fumbles is hard to beat—but I don’t think there is any doubt that this is going to be a transformative year for Watt as he really grows into himself as a professional and a leader.
In fact, he has already been active and open in discussing his desire and his budding role in being a leader on this defense, a group that could probably use another one other than Cameron Heyward. And that role also comes with the trust of your teammates, both on and off the field. If they know that you know what you’re doing when you make an improvised play, they will know how to cover for you.