Often, Pro Football Focus serves as a controversial foil for Steelers’ fans. But in their most recent article that named the top three players on each team entering the 2022 season, they were predictable and chalk. The top three being EDGE T.J. Watt, DL Cam Heyward, and S Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Here’s what author Ben Linsey wrote:
“Most of the Steelers’ elite talent resides on their defense, namely Watt, Heyward and Fitzpatrick. Watt and Heyward both rank among the top-three players at their respective position in quarterback pressures over the last three seasons while also playing the run at a high level. Add in Fitzpatrick’s 11 interceptions and 17 forced incompletions over the last three seasons, and Pittsburgh has one of the best defensive cores in the league entering the 2022 season.”
There’s no question the heart of the Steelers resides defensively. Pittsburgh will need a top 10 – minimum – unit in 2022 in order for the team to be competitive and have a chance of making the playoffs. That means the run defense has to improve, the secondary has to take the football away, but its stars have to play like stars.
Last year, Heyward had arguably his best season ever despite being the only lineman for opposing offenses to worry about. He reached double-digit sacks for the second time of his career, picking up his tenth in the regular season finale against Baltimore. He has one of the best bull rushes in football that routinely put interior linemen on skates, while his effort is unparalleled, chasing the ball all over the field.
All Watt did was tie the single-season sack record of 22.5 on his way to becoming Defensive Player of the Year. After being snubbed for two years, Watt took home the DPOY Trophy after leading the league in sacks and tackles for loss. Despite playing hurt for the majority of the year, he was one of the league’s most impactful players, especially in crunch time. No one had more than Watt’s eight fourth quarter/overtime sacks.
Fourth Quarter/OT Sacks, 2021
1. T.J. Watt – 8
2. Nick Bosa – 7
3. Aaron Donald – 6.5
4. Markus Golden – 5
5. Six tied with 4.5
Fitzpatrick’s 2021 season got off to a bumpy start, playing in the slot after the team struggled to find an answer there. Pittsburgh wisely moved him back to his traditional safety spot the remainder of the season, and though Fitzpatrick didn’t post gaudy interception numbers, he played like his normal self. He bailed out an already historically bad defense even more with his open-field tackles.
It’s hard to argue with PFF’s “Big Three” in Pittsburgh. They mentioned Stephon Tuitt and Diontae Johnson on their “others considered” list, but neither have had the consistency as Watt, Heyward, or Fitzpatrick. Najee Harris is another name worth mentioning, but he isn’t yet the All-Pro the others are.