Sitting just 1.0 sacks away from tying the NFL’s All-Time single-season record set by New York Giants Hall of Famer Michael Strahan in 2001, and 1.5 sacks away from setting his own NFL record, Pittsburgh Steelers’ star outside linebacker T.J. Watt draws an ideal matchup to break the record.
Though the 2021 season hasn’t quite gone the way the Steelers’ organization hoped it would, one thing is for certain: Watt is the best defensive player in football, bar none. Sunday’s matchup against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, which just so happens to be against the team that has allowed the most sacks on the year and is starting a backup quarterback, will be the culmination of Watt for the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
For all the dominance he’s displayed week-to-week and likely setting a new NFL record in just 15 games — two of which he’s missed time in while missing two others — there’s one key part of his game that stands out to head coach Mike Tomlin: Watt’s pass rush win rate and overall sack rate. For a guy that faces a bunch of double and triple teams, is consistently held or chipped out of the backfield and is clearly game-planned against, all Watt does is make plays.
It’s something Tomlin has seen up close and in person for the last five seasons, and Watt’s production this season is something the 15-year head coach has always believed he was capable of achieving.
Appearing on his weekly Mike Tomlin Show presented by 84 Lumber Saturday, Tomlin discussed Watt’s record chase with host Bob Pompeani, stating that the All-Pro’s production this year outside of the raw numbers is something he’s never quite seen before. That’s saying something, considering the amount of Hall of Fame defenders Tomlin has been around during his career, including the likes of Warren Sapp, Derrek Brooks, and John Lynch in Tampa Bay.
“It’s probably been about three or four years now that I thought TJ was capable of it [breaking the sack record], to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said to Pompeani, according to video via Steelers.com. “It’s his sack rate, the rate of pressures relative to rush opportunities. His rush rate is ridiculously high. I don’t study the analytics of it globally compared to others, but just watching and studying the tape and watching it and being on sidelines for all my adult life. Basically, I just have never seen a sack rate as high as he is. And so when you’re disruptive as often as he is relative to rush opportunities, numbers are just things that come with it.”
Tomlin is correct in stating that Watt’s pass rush win rate is ridiculously high. In fact, according to ESPN Analytics, the pass rush win rate metric tells us how often a pass-rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds. With that, Watt ranks third in the NFL at 25%, sitting behind Cleveland’s Myles Garrett at 28% and Philadelphia’s Josh Sweat at 26%.
Watt’s run-stopping win rate also ranks very high as he’s one of just two defenders to sit in the top 10 in the league in pass rush and run-stopping win rate. Watt currently ranks eighth in run-stopping win rate at 28%, just behind teammate Alex Highsmith at 29%. Cleveland’s Jadeveon Clowney is the only other edge defender in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in both categories.
Watt is able to convert his pass rushes into a sack at a higher percentage than any other pass rusher in the league, which makes him a deadly weapon off the edge defensively. That alone is what Tomlin is referring too, which is why Watt has a chance to set a new single-season record in the NFL that’s stood for 20 years.