There isn’t a whole lot in the realm of positive things to talk about right now for the Pittsburgh Steelers, or so it seems. The team is spending the next week and a half licking its wounds, some literal, some figurative, as it looks to respond from a frustratingly bleak 21-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the first team they’ve lost to this season who isn’t leading their division (or is in second behind a team leading its division who also beat the Steelers, as in the case of the NFC West).
The defense, at least, has been worth talking about, though, and the brightest spot, for me, is T.J. Watt. Minkah Fitzpatrick has gotten turnovers in bunches—at least one in half the games he’s played for Pittsburgh so far—but Watt has been the most productive and consistent performer.
Following Thursday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, Watt has recorded at least half a sack in seven straight games, the longest in team history since LaMarr Woodley a decade or so ago. He has 10.5 sacks on the year, third in the league, with 24 hits, 35 tackles, four forced fumbles, three recoveries, an interception, and four passes defensed.
And he’s the best edge defender in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus, at least going by grade. Andrew Bell wrote an article about the third-year outside linebacker’s emergence this season, after starting to come on hot in the final month and a half of 2018.
Among the highlights of the article is a breakdown of how it differs from last season. Many of Watt’s pressures last year came via unblocked or clean-up pressure. This year, he is credited with 53 pressures, and only 12 of them have been cleanup or unblocked.
The emergence and effectiveness of his inside move has also been an important development, as he is getting just over 30 percent of his pressures using this approach. He has talked about making more intelligent use of this since going back to the end of last season, and now he’s putting it on tape, week in and week out.
The site has him winning his matchup as a pass-rusher 21.1 percent of the time, which is the seventh-best rate among qualified edge defenders in their system. That is a similar rate at which he was winning in the final several weeks of last season.
He has not only sustained the frequency with which he wins off the line of scrimmage, he has also stepped up his ability to complete plays. He already has as many or more pressures, hits, and hurries as last season, and is quickly closing in on sacks. At his current rate, he should tie his 13-sack total from last season within two to three games.