The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted edge rusher T.J. Watt in the first round in the same year as James Harrison’s final season. Another former first-round outside linebacker, Bud Dupree, was heading into his third season, and at the time, entrenched on the left side.
A highly-conditioned, season veteran, Harrison was held out of practices all offseason, partially because he didn’t need it, but also because the Steelers wanted to get Watt all the reps possible. Then Watt ended up starting at Harrison’s right tackle spot, and Harrison was a healthy scratch most of the season.
As you all know by now, he wasn’t happy about that, and his final year with the Steelers ended in very sour fashion, resulting in him being released, though the team did it on its own terms, situated with the activation of then-rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton off of the Reserve/Injured List. Still, Harrison, like everyone else, saw what was in Watt early on.
“I knew T.J. was going to do extreme things”, he recently said in an interview with CBS Sports. “The first year T.J. got there he was playing on the right side. I remember [saying], ‘why don’t you move T.J. to the left, because T.J. has a move on his left side he can’t replicate on his right’”.
Of course, the Steelers would in fact move Watt to the left a year later, Dupree to the right, and it worked out for the best for both of them. Watt has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past three seasons, the first-team All-Pro List twice.
“It took a year or two for him to do it, but when they moved him to the left you’ve got the numbers you’ve been getting over the last few years”, Harrison added. “That’s no surprise to me”.
Granted, I’m not necessarily convinced that he wouldn’t be just as good playing on the right side. Harrison would certainly know more than I would, but then again, he would also have a very clear motivation to have seen him moved to the left side—the spot that wasn’t his.
Needless to say, Watt has gone on to do great things since moving to the left side of the defense beginning in his second season. Between the 2018 and 2020 seasons, he recorded 42.5 sacks with 98 quarterback hits, 49 tackles for loss, 16 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and three interceptions, with 18 passes defensed.
He recorded three sacks by the time he injured his groin before half time of week two this year, along with two forced fumbles and a tackle for loss. He has missed the past six quarters, but is on track to play tomorrow against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, whom Harrison sacked and hit three times in Super Bowl XLV.