Things weren't supposed to happen like this. And thanks to the efforts of Pittsburgh Steelers LB TJ Watt, it wasn't any worse.
The Steelers entered Sunday's opening contest against the Cleveland Browns with a dominating 10-1 record in the two teams' last eleven contests. The Steelers, sans star RB LeVeon Bell, appeared to have things in control before the Browns reeled off 14 unanswered points to earn extra time.
It wouldn't matter, as the Steelers and Browns would go on to tie, the final score finishing at 21-21. It could have been much worse. Pittsburgh averted disaster late when 2017 1st-round pick TJ Watt cut through Cleveland's line in the waning seconds to block a game-winning field goal attempt.
It was the final in several splash plays for the former Wisconsin Badger, who also blocked a field goal as a rookie last season.
TJ, who finished the game with 11 combined tackles, 4.0 sacks and the blocked field goal, started last year strong against the Browns as well. In his first career game, Watt had 7 tackles, 2 sacks and an interception in Cleveland.
But Watt's rookie year waned in the heart of the season when he suffered a groin injury. Ultimately, Watt would go on to log some impressive numbers as a rookie, but his play was still impacted for much of the season.
Now, a year later, Watt looks to parlay another strong debut into additional dominating performances. Watt has the physical skills to be the featured pass rusher Pittsburgh is hoping for. If Week 1 is any indication, Watt is up to the task.
It is important to note that Watt did win some splash reps against skill players, not against offensive tackles. But that's okay. Good pass rushers are supposed to whip up on bad protection concepts by their opposition. Watt happily obliged with his work against TE Darren Fells.
Giving Watt a free run off the edge against Darren Fells ends exactly as one might expect, with a soft challenge resulting in a bone-crunching hit on QB Tyrod Taylor. This sack would be the first of two for Watt in the 3rd quarter.
Here, if Taylor had an available target, the football likely comes out. But natural athleticism is evident in watching Watt absorb the chip and then transition into his next attack around the edge. Seeing Watt suddenly flatten after an impressive effort to keep his balance is important. Balance through contact was an area of inconsistency for Watt during his one season as a starter with the Badgers.
An important piece of the scouting process is tracking progression. Watt's performance throughout 16 starts hasn't necessarily been linear, but it's reached a new level after this showing. Watt finished the plays that he was supposed to, given the opportunities he had on the field. And he showed some improvement in a key area to do so.
From here, the sky is the limit. Watt is an impressive athlete and shows great traits. But at the highest level of the sport, at some point traits only mean so much without production.
Watt now has 11 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and 65 total tackles in 16 career starts. Any fan of any team would immediately sign on the dotted line if they knew they could get that level of production from their 1st-round pick.
The Steelers will look to get back in the win column next weekend at home against the Kansas City Chiefs.