Just days into the official start of the new league year, the NFL has seen some sizable moves by teams aimed at competing for a Lombardi Trophy next season.
Some of those moves have come at quarterback, with the Denver Broncos trading for Russell Wilson, and the Cleveland Browns trading for Deshaun Watson, while others have come at wide receiver (Davante Adams trade to the Las Vegas Raiders). Some of the largest moves overall though have come with teams aiming for elite-level pass rushers, like the Los Angeles Chargers trading for Khalil Mack, the Raiders signing Chandler Jones, and even the Indianapolis Colts trading for Yannick Ngakoue.
Quietly though, the Steelers have stood pat in that department, knowing they have the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year in T.J. Watt and a consensus All-Pro in Cameron Heyward on their defense.
While Jones and Mack have stolen headlines, Watt and Heyward aren’t going anywhere, at least according to NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, who ranked the pairing his No. 3 pass rush duo in the NFL Friday.
Of course, Brooks has Jones and Maxx Crosby in Las Vegas as his No. 1 duo, and Mack and Joey Bosa in Los Angeles as his No. 2 following the offseason moves. Watt and Heyward keep chugging along through, landing at No. 3.
“Watt is a disruptive sack master with a knack for producing splash plays off the edge. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has 65 sacks over the past four seasons. He’s also forced 21 fumbles over that span, utilizing a tomahawk chop that separates the quarterback from the ball,” Brooks writes. “Heyward is a rock-solid interior playmaker with underrated pass-rushing skills. He has notched double-digit sacks twice in his 11-year career, but his disruption between the tackles doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.
“Opponents are forced to account for his whereabouts in pass protection, and that is a problem when Watt is wreaking havoc off the edges,” Brooks added. “As new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin starts tweaking the scheme to create more sack opportunities for his top playmakers, the AFC could see Watt and Heyward post monster numbers once again for a defense that should be more aggressive and scheme-diverse next season.”
There’s no denying just how great the duo is, even if they might not profile as the typical pass rush tandem with Watt coming off the edge and Heyward feasting in the middle of the offensive line the last few seasons together.
Watt certainly gets all of the national attention due to his splash plays working off the edge, not to mention his last name, but Heyward is just as good as Watt is, making for a dominant duo that teams have a very tough time scheming for.
Under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, not much should change, in terms of the duo’s usage, which should lead to another monster year from the two. As Brooks points out though, some subtle adjustments and the influence of new senior defensive assistant/LB coach Brian Flores could lead to more elaborate pressure packages, potentially leading to more sacks and disruptive plays from the third-ranked pass rush duo.