T.J. Watt returning to the defense greatly improves the Steelers chance of winning. Also, the sky, when not cloudy, is more likely to be blue. I get that stating that T.J. Watt is a big part of the Steelers winning games isn’t anything you don’t already know, but hear me out, This week it matters even more.
In 2020 rookie Joe Burrow lasted only 10 games before injury cost him the rest of his season. Teams were getting to Joe Burrow. How often they hit Burrow had a big impact on the result of the game too. When opponents hit Joe Burrow 5 or more times in a game the Bengals record was 0-4-1, with an average scoring margin of -13.6. When Joe Burrow was hit 5+ times, the Bengals lost, and lost big.
When Joe Burrow was hit less than 5 times, the Bengals were 2-3, but the three losses were by 3, 4, and 3 points, and with two wins the scoring margin was actually +0.2 for the Bengals. Breaking that down more simply, when teams didn’t get to Burrow at least 5 times the Bengals were a league average team, when they got to Burrow, the Bengals were terrible.
The Bengals line was terrible, the quarterback was a rookie, so defenses blitzed Burrow, hitting him as much as they could, driving their chance to win. It was a good strategy and it worked.
But Joe Burrow isn’t a rookie in 2021. The one big improvement that shows up on film and in stats is Joe Burrow’s improved play against the blitz, so how does that affect the numbers for 2021? Let’s take a look.
We can still state that hitting Joe Burrow is a valuable thing to do. In 2021 when Joe Burrow has taken 4 or more hits the Bengals are 1-3, when he takes 3 or fewer they are 5-1. But it gets more interesting when we look at the number of blitzes teams throw at Joe Burrow.
The games where Burrow has faced the highest blitz rates the Bengals have won, and Burrow tends to have better production in those games as well. The Bengals faced the most blitzes they have this season in week 7, facing the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals blew out the Ravens as Burrow threw for over 400 yards, almost 11 yards per pass attempt and a 113.5 passer rating.
Since that game the Bengals opponents have blitzed less each week, and Joe Burrow’s yards per attempt have also dropped. But just not blitzing doesn’t work against these Bengals, like 2020 you can’t just let Joe Burrow be comfortable in the pocket, as noted above you still need to hit Joe Burrow.
That means the biggest key to stopping this Bengals offense is getting to Joe Burrow and hitting him without blitzing. That’s been a key to the Steelers defense in 2021 as well.
From the start of the season the Steelers have won when the defense gets pressure with 4 rushers. From the week one win over Buffalo when they blitzed once and hit Josh Allen five times, to the Week 11 loss to the Chargers when they blitzed 13 times but only hit Justin Herbert twice, the correlation holds up.
What correlates even more is T.J. Watt being on the field. It showed up in Week 2, when T.J. Watt left the field in the middle of the game and Derek Carr suddenly had time to go through progressions and throw the ball downfield in the Raiders comeback win over the Steelers.
It has showed up every week since, and the Steelers record reflects it. The Steelers are 0-2 when T.J. Watt doesn’t play at all, they are 0-1-1 when Watt plays half the game, and their only other loss was to Green Bay, in a game where T.J. Watt returned from injury but was visibly not his usual self, including being outrun by Aaron Rogers for a Packers first down.
Outside of the Packers game the Steelers are 5-0 when T.J. Watt is active for the whole game. Basically, if T.J. Watt is in good health, the Steelers are undefeated. The two games the Steelers were without Watt for the whole game were the week 3 loss to the Bengals when the Steelers blitzed only 5 times, but never hit Joe Burrow and lost 24-10, and last week’s loss to the Chargers. Against the Chargers the defense was forced to blitz to get any pressure on Justin Herbert, as the Chargers could double team Cameron Heyward and let every other rusher face 1 vs. 1 blocking and know they faced no real danger of a sack. Once the Steelers started blitzing, Herbert was able to escape the pocket. He ran for 90 yards in the game.
Looking at the Steelers and the Bengals, both teams are telling us the real story of this game is going to be the whether the Steelers can get pressure from a 4-man rush, and that really boils down to one question: “How healthy is T.J. Watt?” If the statistics hold up, you don’t even need to watch the game to find out, the final score should tell you whether T.J. Watt was healthy or not.