Break Out In The Burgh: Remembering T.J. Watt’s First Ever Game And Third Quarter Heater Against the Cleveland Browns

With it being the middle of the offseason and all of us missing football I’ve decided to turn back the clock. I always find it fun to go back and look at some of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ star players’ first big games. So that’s what we are going to do. Last week’s entry was Le’Veon Bell’s breakout vs the Packers in a snowy Lambeau Field, and today we will be looking at T.J. Watt’s first-ever game where he wrecked the Cleveland Browns.

Breakout Player: Outside linebacker T.J. Watt
Breakout Game: 2017 vs Browns (Seven Tackles, Two Sacks, One Interception)

T.J. Watt is a superstar and the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. When he plays, the team can look really good; when he doesn’t play the team doesn’t look good. Throughout his short career he has already racked up some great accolades like being selected to the AP All-Pro First Team three times, the Pro Bowl five times, and in 2021 being named Defensive Player of the Year.

However, when Watt was drafted in 2017 all of these things were far from certain. Many Steelers fans were not sure what to expect from the Wisconsin prospect who struggled with injuries in his collegiate career, while some of the more cynical fans believed he was only drafted because of his last name.

Watt had a chance in Week One against the Cleveland Browns to prove to his doubters that he belonged in the NFL and was going to be a force, and boy did he do that. Starting at right outside linebacker, Watt caused havoc all day in what was a surprisingly close game to open the season.

Despite going up against Hall-of-Fame left tackle Joe Thomas, Watt quickly showed that he was going to be a superstar, dominating both in the run and pass game. Admittedly the 2017 iteration of the Cleveland Browns was historically bad, going 0-16, but it doesn’t take away the greatness of Watt’s play that Sunday.

Watt started the game against Cleveland being strong against the run, making multiple tackles and tackles for losses, but really started to dominate come the second half, specifically in the third quarter. Early in the third quarter, Cleveland was in the red zone with a chance to tie the game with a touchdown, but Watt made sure to set them in a hole with a huge sack of quarterback DeShone Kizer to put Cleveland in a 3rd and 16 hole.

Watt would keep up the heat on the Browns on the next series as once again he got to Kizer in the backfield. Watt was clearly in the heads of the Browns as he saw a double team, but, despite this, beat the double team and forced Kizer out of the pocket and then finished the play with what was a textbook effort sack. We’ve come to know and love this from Watt, but in his first career game, he showed glimpses of greatness.

Watt then finished his breakout game with an interception coming at the end of the third quarter. Kizer made a horrible decision on this interception as he threw into a crowd of Steelers, but Watt showed off his athleticism as he got up high in the air and intercepted the pass.

In this game, Watt showed that he can stop the run, rush the passer, and drop back and be effective in coverage. In the third quarter, specifically, Watt took over. Watt takeovers have become normal, but at the time was something Steelers fans had been waiting for for a while at the position. Before Watt was drafted, the search for an elite outside linebacker had been hard for Pittsburgh. Jason Worilds showed potential but retired early, Jarvis Jones was a bust whose career was over by Week One of 2017, and Bud Dupree showed flashes but struggled with consistency and injuries.

Watt’s performance in his first career game made everyone a believer. Watt had a really good rookie year, somewhat famously taking James Harrison’s role away from him resulting in Harrison leaving the team near the end of the season. Watt finished his rookie season with 54 tackles, seven sacks, one interception, and one forced fumble.

Watt became a superstar the next season and is now the face of the Steelers. He is on a Hall-of-Fame trajectory, but it all started in Week One of 2017 when he took over against the Cleveland Browns and helped give them their first of 16 losses on the season.

If you would like to watch a cut-up of all of Watt’s great plays in that Week One game against Cleveland, YouTuber SkyDesigns posted Watt’s highlights of that day.

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