Every elite defense is a sum of its total parts. “Eleven Together as One,” as coaches often say. And yet, all of the great ones had a player or two who stood above the rest. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on the early-2000 Ravens. Lawrence Taylor on the Giants of the mid-80s. Mike Singletary and the ‘85 Bears.
In Pittsburgh, the names are as familiar as the units they led. Mean Joe and Lambert. Lloyd and Greene. The Flyin’ Polamalus. The current Steelers’ defense is not yet worthy of being mentioned with their legendary predecessors. Still, they’re pretty darn good. And currently, that Steeler, the one who stands above, is T.J. Watt. While Cameron Heyward is the veteran leader and stabilizing presence up front, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is the glue that holds the back end together, the spirit of the defense, and the player who impacts it most profoundly, is Watt.
Watt is a complete football player. Undoubtedly, though, his greatest attribute is his ability to rush the passer. How good is Watt in this regard?
In 2019, Watt finished fourth in the league with 14.5 sacks. He finished second in the league in pass-rush win rate and third by producing a quarterback hit on 11.2% of his pass-rush chances. With Watt leading the charge, the Steelers averaged just five yards per pass attempt when they rushed four, which was best in the league. This allowed them to drop seven players into coverage more than most teams, helping them to a top-3 finish in DVOA against the pass.
By just about any metric, T.J. Watt is a great pass rusher. Why is that? What separates him from his peers? And how do the Steelers capitalize on Watt’s abilities? Let’s take a look.
What Makes A Great Pass Rusher?
There is no universal formula which creates a great pass rusher. However, all great rushers have some combination of the following: strength, technique, acceleration and, for lack of a better term, “feel.”
Reggie White, for example, was famous for his “hump” move, which consisted of him tossing 320 pound offensive tackles to the ground with his exceptional combination of strength and speed. Derrick Thomas combined acceleration with technique to turn the corner towards a quarterback like a Ferrari. Von Miller, according to long-time defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, has an instinct or “feel” that makes him an elite pass rusher.
“You have to feel where you are,” Phillips told The Athletic, “where the quarterback is, and how to get by a blocker in a short area.” Miller, he said, can beat a blocker inside or outside, however he needs to. His “feel” dictates his course.
When you watch T.J. Watt on film, you see elements of all of these characteristics. He is not a Herculean power-rusher like White. Nor is he a Ferrari like Thomas. He is, however, a great technician who is both strong and quick enough to possess a wide repertoire of pass rush moves. And, like Miller, Watt simply understands how to get to a quarterback.
Here’s a look at some of the ways he does it:
Reading the pass set
Watt had one of his most productive games of 2019 against the Rams. He registered five tackles, two sacks, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble to spearhead a dominant defensive effort in a 17-12 win.
Watt’s ability to read the pass set of the adjacent offensive lineman was the catalyst for the first of his sacks. On a 1st and 20 play for Los Angeles in the 2nd quarter, Watt used a spin move to try to win inside against right tackle Rob Havenstein (79). The spin can be risky since it requires a defender to turn his back and his eyes from the quarterback. It also exposes the edge if there’s no scrape defender coming over the top. A quarterback like Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray can exploit an edge spinner by ducking out of the pocket and dashing to the corner.
Here, though, Watt recognized the situation. When he spun, he indeed exposed the edge. But this was not Jackson or Murray at quarterback. It was Jared Goff, who is little threat to scramble. This freed Watt to work inside.
Also, because Watt was aligned as a 9-technique outside the tight end, there was a lot of space to the edge for Havenstein to protect. He took an aggressive vertical drop as a result, buying depth to guard against Watt’s go-to move, the speed rush. Watt read the drop, realized he couldn’t get to the edge and immediately spun. Havenstein did a nice job redirecting and picked him up. Goff completed the throw for a moderate gain.
The payoff came on the following play. On 2nd and 9, Watt pressed the edge, bent under the 6’8 Havenstein to win leverage and got to Goff for the sack:
The interesting thing when comparing these two plays is Havenstein’s feet as he pass sets. On the first play, he kicked out of his stance and went straight back. On the second play, with the spin move likely on his mind and Watt aligned closer to him, his set was flatter, protecting against a move to the inside. Watt exposed his lack of depth by going wide, then executed an expert rip move to dip under Havenstein’s hands. It was game over from there.
On each of these plays, we see T.J. read the set of the blocker and adjust his movement on the fly to try to exploit it. It’s a great example of a player getting to the quarterback by combining masterful technique, an advanced repertoire, and the “feel” Wade Phillips discussed.
The Counter Move
All good pass rushers have a signature move. For Watt, it’s the speed rush to the edge. Here’s another one, against Cincinnati, with a better look at the dip-and-rip technique which often frees him to the quarterback:
Naturally, to protect against this move, blockers often take a deep vertical drop. Watt, then, must employ effective counter moves to allow him to win inside when linemen take away the edge.
The spin move shown above is one such counter. A sounder alternative is what’s commonly called the swim, whereby a pass rusher works across a blocker’s face by clubbing him with his inside arm and then bringing his outside arm over top and through the blocker’s inside hip. A swim move must be timed well and executed quickly to keep a blocker from punching the exposed chest of a rusher once the outside arm comes up and over. But, when done properly, it allows him to keep his eyes forward and creates a direct path to the quarterback.
Here’s Watt beating Miami right tackle Jesse Davis (77) with a wicked swim move. Davis exposed himself to the swim by failing to stay square on his pass set. He immediately opened and faced Watt, inviting the inside move. T.J. obliged by using his right arm to club Davis’ left arm away and then swimming across his face.
By contrast, watch Miami’s left tackle on Bud Dupree. Dupree also attempted to work inside, but because the tackle stayed square on his set he was able to redirect and stifle Dupree’s charge. Dupree also failed to employ much technique. He simply struck the tackle in the chest and tried to slip inside.
So, on the left, we see good fundamentals from the tackle and a poor pass rush move from Dupree result in a win for the offense. On the right, we see a bad pass set by the tackle and a textbook swim move from Watt result in quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick getting knocked on his butt. Watt’s ability to counter when blockers overcompensate against his speed rush makes him difficult to handle one-on-one.
The Coverage Sack
The Steelers went from 17th to 3rd in pass defense DVOA between 2018 and 2019. The additions of Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Mark Barron and Devin Bush and the improved play of Dupree all contributed to the progress. Watt, of course, factored in as well. In some instances, he benefited from it.
Take the following example from the game at Cleveland. On a 1st and 10 play near midfield, the Browns tried to use play-action to hit the tight end to the field (top of the formation) on a deep crossing route. The Steelers didn’t bite and Baker Mayfield had no one to throw to. He held the ball in the pocket looking for a second option until Watt swooped in on him for the sack.
Here’s a better look at the coverage which made Watt’s sack possible. Safety Terrell Edmunds (34), who was walked down as the eighth defender in the box against the Browns Ace (double tight) formation, did a nice job of staying with the tight end. Meanwhile, Nelson locked on the vertical route at the top of the formation, taking away Mayfield’s second option. Thankfully, Mayfield didn’t look to the corner route at the bottom of the formation, where Joe Haden released the receiver as though he was anticipating a switch. The lockdown coverage by Edmunds and Nelson allowed Watt, who was being chipped by the tight end to the boundary, to quickly shed the block and pursue Mayfield.
In 2018, the odds of the tight end being covered on the deep cross were slim. The Steelers were simply poor defending second-level receivers all season. By 2019, however, they had largely remedied that problem. Better overall pass defense helped make Watt a better pass rusher.
The Scheme Sack
Just as offensive coordinators draw up plays to get the ball to their best receivers, defensive coordinators scheme to the strengths of their personnel. Keith Butler is no exception. The Steelers run several games up front designed to free Watt to the quarterback. Here’s one such example, from the Week 2 contest in Pittsburgh against the Seahawks.
In the still frame below, the Steelers are in an Over front with Watt as a 9-tech outside the detached tight end and Stephon Tuitt as a 3-tech on the outside shoulder of the guard. Typically, on a pass play, Tuitt would press the guard while Watt would rush the edge.
On this particular play, however, the Steelers run a gap exchange stunt. Tuitt attacks the inside shoulder of the tackle while Watt charges upfield a few steps before redirecting and coming underneath:
A few things make this stunt effective. First, Tuitt gets off the ball aggressively and is strong enough to penetrate deep into the backfield. The guard blocks out on him and is driven back, opening a lane for Watt to rush. Tuitt also gets enough penetration to cut off an escape route for Russell Wilson so the elusive quarterback can’t slip away to the edge.
Watt, meanwhile, drives upfield and pulls the tackle with him. When he ducks inside, the tackle tries to redirect. But Tuitt’s charge has created a cluster of bodies, making it impossible for the tackle to stay with Watt. T.J. has a clear lane to Wilson for the sack.
Although Watt gets credit for the sack, Tuitt’s effort makes it possible. He executes his role flawlessly, eliminating Seattle’s ability to block Watt. Having physical and athletic players inside like Tuitt and Heyward augment Watt’s pass rushing skills and open up the playbook for Butler.
T.J. Watt is a great pass rusher for several reasons. He combines the necessary tools of the trade — strength, technique, acceleration, and instinct — with a signature edge rush and an effective repertoire of counter moves. He also benefits from having teammates up front who can be used to scheme Watt to the quarterback and others on the back end whose coverage abilities buy him time to get there. All of it adds up to Watt being the best defender on a unit that, with a few more seasons like the one it produced in 2019, could take its place in the pantheon of all-time Steeler defenses.