I once made the mistake of deadpanning in an article that I was going out on a limb in saying that I thought T.J. Watt was a pretty good player. Granted, this was back in 2019 or so coming off of his second season, but the underplay was not recognized and one reader dutifully called me out for not giving the young, budding star his due.
Well, I haven’t made that same mistake since. Six years in, Watt is undeniably one of the greatest football players in the world, full stop, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ results this season with and without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year speak to that. In fact, former Steeler Bryant McFadden believes he should already have repeat consideration just for that fact alone.
“I think it’s safe to say, listeners, even though T.J. has only played in two games, he still should get a Defensive Player of the Year nominee”, he said on the Cook & Joe Show on 93.7 The Fan with Ron Cook and Joe Starkey. “Because the Steelers defensively have no, no competitive edge. They seem like they don’t have a pulse when T.J.’s not in the lineup”.
Those are some harsh words, but are they untrue? They only won one game during the seven weeks that he missed, and a lot of those losses do fall on the defense. They struggled to get after quarterbacks without him, barely averaging a sack per game. They weren’t getting turnovers and failing to capitalize on the sparse shots at them that they did have.
“Let’s keep it real, think about what we saw Week 1 against Cincinnati. Think about how dominant the unit was”, McFadden added. “Think about T.J., and this is one thing Hall of Fame-like players have, they make everybody better. It’s just something about them in their uniform where you feel much better about your chances”.
Watt has led the NFL in sacks in each of the past two seasons with 20-plus tackles for loss in each year, and a combined 80 quarterback hits, plus an interception, seven forced fumbles, and 14 passes defensed.
It will take time for him to work up to respectable numbers in 2022 given that he has only played in two games so far this year, of course. Right now, he has 10 tackles, of which three were for loss, plus a sack and two quarterback hits. He also has an interception and two passes defensed.
But it’s not just the numbers that he puts up that are so valuable for the Steelers. It’s also the attention that he draws, which McFadden also mentioned, saying that the New Orleans Saints played him as though he hadn’t missed a snap.
Everybody else benefited from that, drawing double teams and opening things up for others to make plays. Alex Highsmith on the opposite side took advantage, registering two sacks. He had three sacks in the week-one game in which he was on the field with Watt. You can’t quantify that, but you can see it on the field.