The Pittsburgh Steelers made outside linebacker T.J. Watt the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history shortly before the regular season began, paying him an average of $28 million per year, with the first three years of his contract being fully guaranteed, bucking longstanding team precedent in that regard.
They did it because Watt has proven to be a precedent-busting talent who is off to among the best five-year starts of a career that we’ve ever seen, not just in Pittsburgh, but anywhere. He’s been in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year Award for years now.
And it doesn’t take much for him to find motivation. He also understands what is asked of him. “As an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you have to be a playmaker, and I think that’s something I take on with great pride in”, he told Rich Eisen earlier today.
“Trying to bring as much splash [as possible], whether it’s getting tackles for loss, getting sacks, punching the ball out, tipping passes up in the air, interceptions, anything like that”, Watt said in quantifying his role as playmaker. “I’m trying to be a tone setter for our defense, and that’s just something that I’m trying to do each and every single play every time I’m out on the field for my defense”.
Through six games in 2021—the Steelers have already had their bye week, and he missed one game with a groin injury—Watt has already put up 8.5 sacks, with 15 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, three passes defensed, and two fumble recoveries, as well as eight tackles for loss. His second sack in overtime against the Seattle Seahawks in week six essentially won the game, forcing a fumble in field goal range.
Since coming into the league via the first round in 2017, few players have produced as Watt has. He has 58 sacks since then, with 67 tackles for loss, 126 quarterback hits, 20 forced fumbles, six recoveries, 28 passes defensed, and four interceptions. Pretty much the only thing he hasn’t done yet is score.
For most of his career, the Steelers were able to pair him with Bud Dupree. Now he has second-year Alex Highsmith playing across from him, who has high upside, but is still finding his way a bit. With the trade of Melvin Ingram, perhaps, his role has been made a little less ambiguous.
Both of them battled through groin injuries earlier in the year, Highsmith dealing with one heading into the season opener, already. Watt was nicked in the first half of the second game. They appear to be fully recovered now, though, and ready to supply the sort of playmaking required of them for this defense, and this team, through the long back half of the season.