Over the course of the past couple of seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have established a small, elite core of defenders at all three levels, with the long-tenured stalwart Cameron Heyward on the front line, T.J. Watt at outside linebacker, and then safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, brought in during the 2019 season, solidifying the back end.
All three players have made the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team in each of the past two seasons (though Heyward was second-team for the All-Pro list in 2020), representing some of the very best of the best that the game has to offer, with Watt being in the running for Defensive Player of the Year two years in a row.
Watt fittingly made Pro Football Focus’ top 10 in their list of the 101 top players of the 2020 season. Though he checked in all the way at number nine, he was still the second-ranked defender, with the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald actually ranked as the best player in the NFL.
T.J. Watt was one of the game’s best players for the second season in a row and has now surpassed his brother as the game’s most dominant Watt sibling. Only Shaquil Barrett (77) tallied more total pressures than Watt did in the regular season (73), but while Barrett’s pressures only resulted in the quarterback hitting the deck 16 times, Watt either sacked or knocked down the quarterback 42 times, earning a dramatically better grade in the process. There are few better players than T.J. Watt in the game right now.
Heyward is a regular on these lists in recent years. In fact, he ranked 10th himself in the previous edition. This year, he checked in at number 29, which is pretty reasonable, I think, when you look at his statistical output.
Heyward has always been a good player, but he has elevated his game to another level over the last four seasons. He backed up a career year in 2019 with one almost as good the following season, finishing the year with a PFF grade of 89.5 while notching 64 total pressures and 32 defensive stops. He was a dominant force on the interior of the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive front that led the league in pressure rate and seems only to be getting better with age. Heyward has a strong case to be seen as the league’s second-best interior defender after Aaron Donald.
And yet…Fitzpatrick didn’t make the list at all. He checked in at 94 last year, but they didn’t feel his play this past season merited inclusion. The safeties who did make the list were Jessie Bates III (24), Adrian Amos (27), John Johnson III (51), Marcus Maye (67), Kareem Jackson (87), and Justin Simmons (99), so there wasn’t really a bias against the position.
They simply felt there were six safeties who were better than Fitzpatrick, who actually graded higher than Simmons in their own system as the sixth-best safety. So it’s not clear why Simmons made the list over him when he was graded higher.