It’s been exciting to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers, fun even. They are coming off their most complete game with an offense led by veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is playing some of his best football, and strengthened by another young, exciting wide receiver; this time it’s rookie Chase Claypool. The team’s defense has been its steadiest force and one of the top units in almost every statistical category; it’s the second-most efficient defense, according to Football Outsiders.
The Steelers’ defense made the 2019 season without Roethlisberger palatable, and at every level, there’s a star. Minkah Fitzpatrick is arguably the best safety in the NFL right now, Cameron Heyward is a leader up front, then there’s Pittsburgh’s formidable pass rush led by T.J. Watt. He has been so effective in the Steelers’ defense he bests the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Joey Bosa with the highest pressure rate this season (18.2%), via ProFootballFocus.
Watt has been unstoppable off the edge, totaling nine sacks, and is on pace for a career-high 16. He’s challenging Donald for Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) and has topped him in sportsbooks after his Week 10 performance. According to BetOnline, Watt is now the favorite for the illustrious award, and history is also on his side.
In the Steelers’ 36-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Watt had two sacks, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss. He, along with his brother, J.J., are the only two players in the last 15 seasons to record nine-plus sacks, 25-plus quarterback hits, and 10-or-more tackles for loss in their team’s first nine games of the season. The elder Watt did it in 2015, the same year he won DPOY.
During Pittsburgh’s ninth-consecutive win, Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow got a violent welcome to the NFL, going against Watt and the rest of the Steelers’ pass rushers. This, obviously, isn’t new. Pittsburgh prides itself on a tough, hard-nosed defense. It’s difficult to stand out in this unit, but that’s just what Watt is doing.
“I think it’s very important to welcome quarterbacks in the AFC North the appropriate way,” Watt said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Scoring points like that and holding the offense the way we did, we try to do that to the best of our ability. We know Joe Burrow is their franchise quarterback and we’re just trying to let him know what he can expect when he comes to Pittsburgh.”
Watt has been dominant off of the edge for years. He’s had at least 13 sacks in each of the last two seasons, and even through a stretch of play without one—including twice in the 2018 season where he didn’t record a single sack in three consecutive games—he’s disruptive in other ways. Watt has forced 14 fumbles in the last three seasons and led the league with eight in 2019. This year, there have been just two games (in Weeks 1 and 5) where Watt hasn’t recorded a sack. When he entered Week 10, Watt was ranked just under Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett as the second-most disruptive player in the NFL. The only reason Watt wasn’t atop the list? He has yet to force a turnover on a pressure; that, I’ll assume, will happen in the coming weeks. He uses his blend of power and quickness and somehow finds a way to bend his 6-foot-4, 250-plus pound frame to get after opposing quarterbacks one way or another. He has the fastest pass rush in the league, and don’t forget: He’s only 26 years old and playing his fourth season.
Watt will be due for a contract extension next season; he should have a lucrative contract waiting. He’s already shown how valuable he is to the Steelers’ defense, often getting double-teamed which gives way for the other bruisers in Pittsburgh’s front seven. When Watt is able to elude offensive linemen, there’s usually no getting past him, even for the freight-train that is running back Derrick Henry. The Steelers might not be perfect through the remainder of the regular season, but Watt’s play has been pretty close to it.