It’s nice to have two pass rushers whose play is above the line coming off the edges. The Pittsburgh Steelers had that when they had James Harrison and LamMarr Woodley, and it played a critical role in their Super Bowl victory of 2008, and in their success of that era generally.
It took them a while, but the defense was able to find its next great pair with the drafting of T.J. Watt and the continuing development of Bud Dupree. Both were first-round picks, so they should have been able to rise to that level, but the bottom line is that they did, and the duo has helped the team lead the NFL in sacks for going on four years now.
Dupree, of course, was lost for the remainder of the season after suffering a torn ACL late in Wednesday’s win over the Baltimore Ravens. He finishes what is likely his final season in Pittsburgh with eight sacks in 11 games, the second-most in a single season in his career after hitting double digits for the first time in 2019.
The question now becomes, how much will his absence affect Watt on the other side? While he is an All-Pro player in his own right, he has always had Dupree on the other side. It’s conventional thinking to argue that complementary pass rushers make each other better.
“I don’t think T.J. gets assistance from anyone in terms of his quality of play”, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said yesterday in addressing Watt’s performance without Dupree going forward. “T.J. makes his plays. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue at all. Guys like T.J. don’t depend on anyone”.
The fourth-year player currently leads the NFL with 11 sacks through 11 games. He also has 33 quarterback hits, 39 tackles, a league-leading 17 for loss, an interception, and six passes defensed.
Bafflingly, he has not forced a single fumble this season. He had eight last season, the most in the NFL, and six the year before that. It had become a staple of his play. There is nothing different about the way he is attempting to force the ball out this year—they just simply haven’t come.
Even in spite of that, however, the Steelers lead the NFL with 23 takeaways this season, after leading the league a year ago as well. They aren’t on the same pace as they were in 2019, but they are on track to hit over 30 for the second year in a row, and yet they have only gotten one from Watt after he recorded six by himself the previous season.
We can’t rule out the possibility that he steps up even more with Dupree absent, like Woodley did during a stretch in 2011 when Harrison missed time due to injury. Of course, Woodley would go on to blow out his hamstring and never be the same after that.