T.J. Watt is the best defender in football, and if you disagree, you had better come with a damn strong argument for somebody else. While his numbers alone will tell you that few can compare with him right now, the tape is even more compelling.
And that tape includes the sorts of things opposing offenses feel that they must resort to in order to try to contain him, or slow him down, yet it has rarely been overly effective. He has recorded at least one sack in all but two games played so far this year, with 16 in total, coming off of a career-best 3.5 on Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has been around long enough to have seen just about everything, and he knows about coaching great pass rushers, as he’s done it in this system with James Harrison and Joey Porter, for example. What he sees offenses pull on Watt is not necessarily new. But it’s a statement about how concerned they are about his impact, telling reporters yesterday that all of their opponents take special means of protecting against him.
“Everybody does. Everybody does nowadays. They get in what we call fake empty”, he told reporters, via transcript. “Fake empty is they have two guys on the corners, they like to chip out and give those offensive tackles a chance to dadgum block them and keep them from getting to the quarterback”.
“People do that stuff all the time. We’ll see that stuff against these guys too, the same thing”, he said, referring to the Minnesota Vikings, their upcoming opponent. “Trying to stop T.J., they’ve got to stop Cam [Heyward] too. We’ve got a couple of good guys there that give people problems. Alex Highsmith has been playing well for us. We’ll see what happens in terms of how they protect”.
Minnesota’s right tackle is Brian O’Neill, a 2018 second-round pick who actually came out of the University of Pittsburgh. He has played every snap this season, and very nearly every snap in the previous two seasons as well.
And he’s been a good pass protector this year. According to Pro Football Focus, for example, he has yet to surrender a sack all season, allowing only 11 total pressures on 512 snaps in pass protection, only one of those being a hit.
But he hasn’t played T.J. Watt. I wouldn’t exactly call the edge defenders he has faced this season a who’s who of the elites. Still, he’s not going to be an easy challenge, and the Vikings have allowed only 18 sacks all season, second-fewest in the NFL.
The Steelers come into the game with 37 sacks, the most in the NFL, on pace to lead the league in that statistic for the fifth consecutive season. Watt on his own has 16 of them. Chances are, he’s going to get at least one.