It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Steelers are very blessed with elite-level defensive talent in the front seven with reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and All-Pro interior defensive tackle Cameron Heyward.
So far this offseason, the duo — which reeked havoc on the NFL in the 2021 season to the tune of 32.5 sacks, 36 tackles for loss, 56 quarterback hits, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, 16 pass breakups and one interception — has earned the moniker of the Steelers’ top duo, according to CBS Sports, and ranked No. 5 in the NFL in NFL.com’s duos ranking.
Now, Watt and Heyward hold down the No. 1 EDGE and No. 2 interior defensive lineman individual rankings from CBS Sports’ Jeff Kerr, who ranked the two positions individually Tuesday morning.
Watt, who won the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year, tied the NFL’s single-season sacks record and earned another First Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl accolade, ranked No. 1 in Kerr’s EDGE rankings, placing in front of Cleveland’s Myles Garrett, settling that AFC North debate once again.
“The reigning Defensive Player of the Year deserves to be No. 1 on this list heading into 2022. Watt’s greatness deserves more than just a few paragraphs. Watt finished his 2021 season leading the league in sacks, quarterback hits (39) and fumble recoveries (three). He averaged 1.5 sacks per game and finished with 12.5 sacks in the second half and overtime — which also led the league,” Kerr writes regarding Watt as his selection for the league’s top EDGE defender. “He’s just the fifth player to lead the league in sacks, tackles for loss, and quarterback hits in a season — joining DeMarcus Ware, J.J. Watt, Chandler Jones, and Aaron Donald.
“Watt’s 0.94 sacks-per-game average is the highest in league history, as he and Reggie White are the only players to have 13-plus sacks in four consecutive seasons (has 72 sacks in 77 career games). Only White (nine), Bruce Smith (seven) and Kevin Greene (six) have more 13-plus sack seasons than Watt — whose four 13-plus sacks in his first five seasons are tied with White for the most in NFL history.”
Watt is on a Hall of Fame pace just five seasons into his career as a former first-round draft pick in 2017 at No. 30 overall. He’s a true game wrecker off the edge for the Steelers, one that can single-handedly change the course of a game with one well-timed swipe at the football once he reaches the quarterback.
Somehow, Watt still remains underrated as there’s still a discussion between him or Garrett as the NFL’s best edge defender despite knowing the numbers Watt is putting up, which is only comparable to the Minister of Defense himself. He’s the best edge defender in football, and arguably the best player in the NFL, period.
Opposite Watt, Heyward is carving out a Hall of Fame career himself, especially late in his career, as he continues to rack up All-Pro accolades. For his efforts, Heyward landed at No. 2 on CBS Sports’ interior defensive line rankings, right behind Los Angeles star Aaron Donald.
“Heyward is the other excellent defensive lineman on the Steelers roster (yes there are two of them), turning another dominant season into his third First Team All-Pro selection in five years. Heyward pretty much did everything for the Steelers, finishing with 89 tackles, 17 quarterback hits, 10 sacks and nine passes defensed,” Kerr writes regarding Heyward’s rankings in the top 10 of the iDL rankings. “Also excellent against the run, Heyward finished second among interior linemen with 46 run stops and finished with an incredible 3.7% missed tackle rate (which is excellent for any lineman). Heyward’s nine passes defensed led all interior linemen, and were five more than Donald and Derrick Brown (second on the list).
“Heyward leads the NFL in tackles among all defensive linemen with 322. He leads all interior linemen in tackles for loss (59) and is third in quarterback hits (99). He has 193 solo tackles since 2017, second only to Buckner amongst interior linemen. Heyward’s 43 sacks over the past five years trail only Donald.”
If Watt weren’t on the Steelers, there’s a good chance that Heyward would get serious NFL DPOY support and recognition in recent seasons. While Donald steals a lot of the attention due to his impressive strength and explosiveness, Heyward quietly continues to chug along, dominating the competition week after week, upholding the standard in the Steel City that those before him set on the defensive line.
Having two of the top 1-2 players at their respective positions in the NFL is an excellent starting point for the Steelers defensively under head coach Mike Tomlin. How well that translates to wins in the future as the Steelers go through a transition offensively remains to be seen. They’re in a great spot though with Heyward and Watt up front setting the tone weekly.