This isn’t the 1980s anymore. Or 1990s. Or even early-mid 2000s. Fullbacks in the NFL aren’t extinct, but they’re definitely on the endangered species list. That’s a product of the college game and its spread systems. Fullbacks don’t exist there and so they rarely trickle up to the pro game. But the Pittsburgh Steelers have one in Derek Watt and on Sunday, Mike Tomlin praised the versatility — and value — he brings.
“I think when you’re talking about today’s fullback, I think it starts additionally with special teams,” Tomlin said via a transcript issued by the team. “Because you use a lot of different personnel groups, they don’t play as much as they used to.”
The Steelers, like most NFL offenses, are a base 11 personnel team. Meaning, they employ one running back, one tight end, and three receivers. Given their investments in the latter, Day 2 picks on JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool, they have every incentive to play those guys as much as possible. It leaves few snaps for a fullback. Most of those came situationally in short-yardage and goal-line moments.
Watt was signed to play fullback but also to be a four-phase special teamer, something Tomlin was quick to point out.
“That’s the hidden value of Derek Watt and that’s what’s not talked about enough regarding Derek Watt. He’s our fullback and we utilize him and we can talk about whether or not we choose to throw him the ball or use him on lead blocks and so forth. But he’s a core component of our special teams unit and I didn’t want to miss that point as well.”
In his first four seasons with the Chargers, Watt recorded 35 total tackles, one of the higher marks in the league. He replaced a strong special-teamer in Roosevelt Nix, cut last season after injuries derailed his career. In his first year with the Steelers, Watt recorded eight tackles in just twelve games. He played 209 special teams snaps, eighth-most in the league among fullbacks despite missing considerable time.
Injuries hampered his first season with the team. He underwent offseason surgery, was limited in training camp, and missed several games due to a hamstring pull suffered against the Houston Texans.
In the Steelers pass-first, run-never offense, Watt logged just 52 offensive snaps. And he wasn’t terribly effective in those limited reps.
Under new OC Matt Canada, there’s a chance he could be used more often. Canada brings a more run-focused approach and Watt appears to be entering the season with a clean bill of health. In today’s practice, Watt reportedly nearly caught a long pass on a wheel route from Ben Roethlisberger.
Of course, Watt didn’t make the play, which might be as good a reason as any not to involve a fullback in the vertical passing game with so much talent at wide receiver and tight end. But Canada’s tape shows a coach willing to run wheels and switch routes out of the backfield and it’s a concept that’s become popular around the league.
Tomlin wouldn’t comment if the Steelers will party like it’s 2002 in 2021.
“To be determined,” he said when asked if the team will use a fullback more this season.
In the team’s first depth chart, Watt was listed as the starting fullback. Trey Edmunds was tabbed as his backup.