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Heitritter/Kozora Debate: Will TJ Watt Set The Single-Season Sack Record In 2022?

New series for the site over the next month. I promise we’re not going all Embrace Debate on you but Jonathan Heitritter and I have teamed up to debate issues we have genuine, good-faith disagreement over Steelers-related topics. Let us know who made the better argument and what side of the debate you come in on in the comments below.

Today’s topic is…

Will TJ Watt Set The Single-Season Sack Record In 2022?

Alex – TJ Watt Will

Will TJ Watt set the single-season sack record this year? Come on, give me a hard question. Answering that one is as easy as asking if the Pittsburgh Pirates will always make me sad, if Danny Smith is forever, or if I’ll ever find true love (answers: yes, heck yes, absolutely not).

Watt tied Michael Strahan’s mark with 22.5 sacks last season. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. While Watt may have had a 17-game opportunity to do it, his sacks came in 15 games, missing two others completely due to injury. But even that doesn’t put his numbers into proper context. Watt played in 15 games but missed halves of others – Week 10 against the Lions and Week 14 versus the Vikings.

Essentially, Watt missed ten quarters last season and still tied Strahan’s mark. Incredible stat for an equally incredible player.

If we extrapolate out Watt’s sack totals over a complete 17-game season and adjust for halves missed, he would’ve finished with 27 sacks, shattering the old record and setting a mark previously unimaginable.

Sacks can be a fickle number and they don’t always perfectly correlate to pass rushing chops. There’s a luck element to it. A split second between a quarterback throwing a completion or getting sacked. A quarterback wrapped up but manages to toss the ball away or eating it and going to the ground. Sacks can be random, not linear and cleanly projectable. But Watt has improved his sack totals every single year. Here’s how it’s tracked:

2017: 7
2018: 13
2019: 14.5
2020: 15
2021: 22.5

Why stop now? Offenses have known how special Watt is since his sophomore season. They’ve chipped him, double-teamed him, used formations to widen his alignment, they’ve done everything possible to slow Watt down. Nothing works. He’s about to own the Steelers’ career sack record and is on a first-ballot Hall of Fame path. With just two or three more seasons like the five he’s had, he’ll have cemented Canton status.

Watt’s ascent will continue in 2022. He’ll own the sack record. And no one is going to break it for a long time. Except for maybe himself.

Jonathan – TJ Watt Won’t

Pittsburgh Steelers OLB T.J. Watt tied the single-season sack record in 2021, posting 22.5 that ties him with former New York Giants DE Michael Strahan for first all-time. Watt managed this incredible feat last season despite playing only 15 games and leaving several others early while dealing with hip, knee, and groin injuries throughout the season. One would think that a chance to play a full 17 games in 2022 would allow Watt a better chance to break the sack record his tied the season before, right?

As Lee Corso often says, “Not so fast, my friends.”

Here’s the thing about historic statistical seasons, they’re historic for a reason. Tying the single-season sack record is an extraordinary feat! Meaning? It is out of the ordinary. That is exactly the case with Watt’s 2021 season. In Watt’s three seasons prior to his historic 2021 performance, he totaled 13, 14.5, and 15 sacks, respectively while playing at least 15 games each season. Improvement should be expected from season to season for a player in his prime, but a jump from 15 sacks to 22.5 is a statistical outlier.

You can say that Watt’s ability to win as a pass rush is statistically abnormal, and you would be right based on Alex’s study on how Watt wins on 3rd and 4th down. Still, to maintain and surpass that level of performance is a feat that one other player has been able to accomplish after coming close to the record. T.J.’s brother, J.J., Watt, posted 20.5 sacks in only his second season in the league. The following year? His sack total dropped to 10.5 in 16 games played. He managed to post 20.5 again in 2014, but that total dropped to 17.5 the next season.

Justin Houston nearly broke the record back in 2014 himself, totaling 22 sacks. The next year? He totaled seven sacks after playing in 11 games due to injury. Even the great Michael Strahan who shares the record with Watt was unable to break his record of 22.5 sacks set in 2001, totaling 11 the next season, and never to surpass 20 again.

The way Watt racked up his sacks was also sporadic, having big multi-sack games against the Seahawks Week 6 (2) with Brandon Shell at RT, the Ravens Weeks 13 & 18 (4.5) against RT Patrick Mekari/Tyre Phillips, the Browns Week 17 (4) against James Hudson, and the Bears Week 9 (3) against RT Elijah Wilkinson. While you must play against who the opposing team lines up across from you, Watt greatly benefitted playing against below-average competition on beat up offensive lines that had numerous starters missing due to injury.

 

Going into 2022 with Pittsburgh projected one of the toughest opening schedules in the league along with heightened focus on the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Watt may have a tough time recreating that similar number of multi-sack performances which drove his sack numbers last season. Combine this with the fact that we expect Alex Highsmith to take a step forward in Year Three as well as guys like Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, and others to make an impact at rushing the passer, it’s entirely possible and likely opposing offenses focus their attention on Watt and allow the others opportunities to win in one-on-one situations.

This comes as no slight to Watt, as he is deserving of as much of opposing offense’s attention given the player he is. Still, while the saying goes, “records were made to be broken,” it is extremely hard, and frankly unlikely for that to be the case. Whether it be due to injury, heightened attention by the opposition, or other circumstances, the betting odds are that Watt is more likely not to break the single-season sack record in 2022 than he is. I’m not a betting man, but if I was to advise a friend who were, I would take the under on 22.5 sacks for Watt next fall.


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