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Breaking down new Steelers FB Derek Watt, Part 2: Kick/Punt Returns

Looking at Derek Watt as a blocker on both punt and kick returns.

Green Bay Packers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In part 1 I looked at Derek Watt on kick and punt teams, and how good he was on those teams. His value should really be felt on the Steelers punt team, a team that ranked 4th worst in the NFL according to Football Outsiders DVOA.

On the other side of special teams, kick and punt returns, the Steelers ranked 3rd in the NFL in punt return DVOA, but 2nd worst in kick return DVOA. The rise of Diontae Johnson returning punts was a huge reason for the high punt return value, while the Steelers didn’t have anyone step up and take over on kick returns, and it showed.

Derek Watt was one of the best ST players on the LA Chargers, a team that ranked dead last in the NFL in ST DVOA last season, and while we already saw his consistently excellent play covering kicks, now we are going to look at what he did on return teams.

Kick Returns

Watching the Chargers return kicks, it was pretty easy to see their returns all follow a simple pattern.

Derek Watt is the RE, he’s the guy to the right side of the screen, second row. He’ll be right around the numbers on the 40 yard line at the start of all the kick return clips.

Whichever side the ball is kicked to, that side leaves the outside two defenders unblocked, and double-teams the 3rd guy in, with the end on that side helping the double team. You can line up the guys across the middle and that’s who they block, and on the far side they will either leave the last guy open or the last 2 and send one guy to block the kicker. That leaves the far side end and the two up-backs to block defenders according to the return strategy.

In this example, Derek Watt comes all the way across the field and blocks Miami’s gunner on the kick side. Watt throws a good enough block, and the returner is able to get past him.

Here’s one where he blocks in the middle of the field when the ball is kicked away from him. Derek Watt is on the 40 yard line to the left side of the screen.

Here’s Derek Watt’s strength, when he gets hands on you he’s a really good blocker. Here he takes the Bronco running to the ball, stands him up and drives him out of the middle of the field. The Broncos gunner does a good job of taking away the middle though, so the return ends up going outside Watt.

I want to take the opportunity to show Derek Watt’s match-up with one of my favorite Steelers from the 2019 pre-season and early season, Ulysees Gilbert III in the week 6 Steelers-Chargers match-up. It shows off Watt’s strength and biggest weakness as a blocker, as well as showing how good Gilbert was on ST as a rookie.

Derek Watt is the RE, near the #40 to the bottom of the screen. Ulysees Gilbert III is the third Steeler from the bottom of the screen, just inside the numbers. Ulysees Gilbert III is in the spot Derek Watt played for San Diego’s kick coverage.

Derek Watt comes up first on the double team, driving Gilbert outside, where the Chargers want him to go. Gilbert evades the block, sealing up the outside lane and drawing a penalty from Watt’s team mate. If he hadn’t been dragged down Gilbert would have been running free to chase the play from the backside. As is, the Chargers ran to the left right at Jordan Dangerfield, and you get to see the reason Tomlin keeps Dangerfield on the roster.

Derek Watt’s biggest weakness on these plays is his mobility. he struggles to deal with quick twitch athletes.

Ulysees Gilbert III is third Steeler from the left, Watt is in his usual spot, second row, left side of screen.

Here Watt and his team mate spread out their double team more, and after Watt gets a good shove on Gilbert they are able to keep him out of the play. Even with the double team succeeding, Gilbert isn’t getting driven entirely out of his lane,

Watt is better at covering kicks than he is blocking for kick returns, but he’s still quite good, and he should help on our kick return team that really missed Roosevelt Nix in 2019.

As for the Steelers kick coverage, the unit ranked 5th in the NFL in DVOA and Watt’s inclusion should go a long way to replacing the players the team lost. If Derek Watt takes over for Benny Snell on kick coverage and Ulysees Gilbert III is as good as he was before he got hurt, the kick cover team could be even better.

Punt Returns

The Chargers didn’t use Derek Watt consistently on punt returns. He started the season on the outside, rushing punts. That’s not a job for someone with limited twitch like Watt. It shows every time they put him in that spot.

Watt doesn’t have the acceleration to threaten the punt, and he doesn’t have the change of direction or speed to get back into the play after rushing the punt. He doesn’t make much of an impact at all on these plays.

The Chargers didn’t use Watt at all on punts in situations that were right for a punt fake, going with almost entirely defensive players in those situations, and he was often not used on punts to pin the ball deep. They really only used him on punts from the other teams’ side of the field when there wasn’t much risk of a fake.

Of course, when they did use him, and he was one spot inside where he lined up in the above play, he made his presence felt.

Watt is second from the right side of the screen.

Watt is really physical from that position, with a lot of plays just like the one above, he gets a good shove on his man to start, then tracks them back down to seal them out of the play.

It is important to note that while he is a very physical ST player, Derek Watt, to this point in his career, does not have a single special teams penalty called against him in his 1170 ST snaps.

To finish off returns, here’s the only punt return play against the Steelers in 2019. Watt is #34, second from the right.

A rare situation where Watt doesn’t engage off the snap at all. You can see him watch Ulysees Gilbert III to see if he goes for an early release, then turns to run and meet Gilbert. All Watt can get of Gilbert is a shove to the sideline. That’s a lot of respect being showed to Gilbert there. Derek Watt succeeds in keeping him out of the play, angling him to the sideline and then getting enough of him to shove him farther outside.

One last note on this play, you can see Benny Snell (wingback to screen left for the Steelers) get sucked inside even though he’s the outside defender and King is able to get outside of him. Watt should be playing that spot in 2020.

I’m not going to cover FGs and XP plays. He plays wing back there, and is as solid at making sure people don’t rush off the edge successfully as he is on punts. I’m not showing film of it, but he’s really good at it, and I couldn’t find a single example of him getting beat as a blocker on those plays.

Derek Watt has limitations, he isn’t a quick twitch athlete, and he is best when given a target and can just go get physical with that target. When his role fits his strengths, he’s a real asset.

I’ve spent 2 film rooms on Derek Watt’s special teams play, and with good reason. I mentioned above he’s played 1170 special teams snaps, and he’s only played 552 on offense. He spends less than 13 of his snaps on offense. The last part of this series will look at his work on offense, and I will give my thoughts on what his signing says about the Steelers offense in 2020.