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T.J. Watt is proving he is worth every penny of his contract

The Steelers team MVP is showing just how important he is to the defense.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers got back into the win with a huge divisional victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. The offense only managed 20 points, but it was enough for the win. After giving up 41 points in back-to-back weeks, the defense held the Ravens to 19 points, including getting the stop on a two-point conversion in the final seconds. One of the biggest factors in the game was the return of T.J. Watt from the Reserve/COVID-19 List in time for the game. How much of a difference did Watt make? That is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

So far during the 2021 NFL season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, games can be broken into two categories when it comes to T.J. Watt. First, their games when T.J. Watt plays at full strength. In these games, the Steelers are 6–0 on the season. Unfortunately, this has only been half the games this year. In the other six games T.J. Watt has either not finished the game due to injury, not played at all due to injury, or is playing his first game back coming off of injury where both cases he did not seem to be his typical self. If those games, the Steelers are 0–5–1. So when T.J. Watt is on the field to finish the game and it’s not following a game he missed due to injury, the Steelers are undefeated.

Now looking at just the performance Watt had in Week 13 against Baltimore, he was credited with 11 total pressures (the total of sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries) according to Pro Football Focus. Based on their statistics, it is the most pressures Watt has had in his NFL career with his only other double-digit performance coming against the Miami Dolphins in Week 8 of the 2019 season where he had 10 total pressures. It should be noted that PFF stats counts 0.5 of a sack as a full pressure.

For the game, Watt had 3.5 sacks, two additional quarterback hits, and five hurries. Watt also was credited with six tackles and a forced fumble on one of the sacks which, unfortunately, went out of bounds and would have ended the game had the Steelers been able to recover. On the season, T.J. Watt now leads the NFL with 16.0 sacks. Appearing in only 10 games this season, let alone missing a large portion of two other games, Watt’s on pace to add another eight sacks over the final five games which would give him the NFL single-season record. Watt is also tied with James Harrison for the Steelers single-season record even if he does not get another sack for the rest of the season.

The NFL record for sacks in a season Watt is chasing is held by Michael Strahan. With 22.5 sacks in 2001, Strahan actually had a slightly higher salary cap number ($8.75 million) during his record-setting season than what Watt has in 2021 ($8,118,694) despite being 20 years ago. It should be noted T.J. Watt has a relatively low salary cap number for 2021 because his new contract, worth $112 million through the 2025 season, saw his more than $35 million bonus split up over the next five seasons. Next season Watt is scheduled to have his highest salary cap hit of over $31 million dollars, but right now he is proving to be worth the mega-deal he signed this past offseason.

So what exactly did T.J. Watt bring to the Steelers defense against the Ravens which made him such a difference maker? Let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

With T.J. Watt coming off the Covid-19 reserve list at the last moments for him to play in this game, there were valid questions about how effective he would be, especially following one of the most limited performances of his career against the Bengals one week before.

He would make his presence felt right off the bat, on the Ravens first drive.

Steelers v Ravens, 1st quarter, 8:36.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

The Ravens leave T.J. Watt unblocked as they appear to be working the back in motion and Lamar Jackson for a quick gain. Devin Bush has the route locked down, though, and with T.J. Watt in his face, Jackson throws a poor ball to the middle of the field, and Minkah Fitzpatrick reminds everyone why you don’t throw to the middle of the field off your back foot when he’s out there.

Steelers v Ravens, 1st quarter, 6:55.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

To start their second drive of the game, the Ravens try to run on T.J. Watt, which historically has been a good option as he is usually rushing the passer. But a tight end isn’t going to win that battle, and the Ravens second drive goes to 2nd down and 11 and ends with a punt two plays later.

Steelers v Ravens, 1st quarter, 1:56.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

This play should look familiar. Arthur Maulet is no Mike Hilton, but this is a blitz Mike Hilton and T.J. Watt ran together a lot. Watt’s inside move gets him a double team and Maulet is free to run at the QB, When Lamar Jackson steps up to escape Maulet’s pressure, Watt is able to reverse course and get a piece of Jackson for the sack. That pressure was key, as you can see neither Joe Schobert nor Minkah Fitzpatrick cover Mark Andrews, but Jackson has to tuck and run before he can hit the open pass.

The very next play would be converted in a similar gaff with Schobert ending up covering the player on Fitzpatrick’s side while Andrews ran free for a first down to extend what would end up a 99 yard TD drive.

Steelers v Ravens, 2nd quarter, 3:57.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

The Ravens double team T.J. Watt, and Chris Wormley playing his best game of the season wins his 1v1. But watch T.J. Watt after he is successfully blocked. He immediately switches into containment mode, denying Lamar Jackson any escape, helping Wormley record a solo sack. You can see the attention Watt draws, and on this play the Ravens have 7 blockers staying in against 5 rushers, giving the defense behind the Steelers front a 6 on 3 numbers advantage. The coverage holds, Watt contains, and the Steelers get another sack.

Steelers v Ravens, 4th quarter, 7:14.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

This is a very typical T.J. Watt sack. The tackle is getting back as fast as he can, and because of that respect for Watt’s speed, he’s too high and not in great balance. T.J. Watt hits him, and uses the tackle to help reverse course and go inside after Lamar Jackson. Watt is strong enough here that the Tackle’s attempt to hold him only delays the inevitable by a fraction of a second. You have to admire #74’s effort on the play, he never gives up and is trying anything to help his quarterback, but he was 1v1 with T.J. Watt, and that’s not fair.

Steelers v Ravens, 4th quarter, 1:21.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

Since Lamar Jackson is going to be stepping up anyway, the tackle doesn’t hurry as much here, and is basically giving T.J. Watt a deep arc if Watt takes it. With Jackson stepping up, Watt declines the offer and fights through his blocker to get back into the middle for another clutch turnover that would have ended the game if the ball hadn’t gone out of bounds.

Steelers v Ravens, 4th quarter, 0:12.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

The Ravens took their second chance and punched the ball in for a touchdown, then went for two with this beautiful play call. Minkah Fitzpatrick is on Mark Andrews, but he’s reading the run because that’s the Ravens biggest threat. With Bush on the running back and both Akhello Witherspoon and Terrell Edmunds manned up on their own receivers, Andrews is wide open. On a play farther from the goal line Joe Schobert would usually switch onto Andrews and Minkah would switch into a zone role, but Schobert is run stuffing here.

If you look at the interception from the first quarter, this is a similar play, but with the addition of play-action that makes it nearly impossible for the Steelers to be ready to stuff the run and cover Mark Andrews on this play.

The only problem with this play is the player they go after. It’s a simple read: If Watt is reading the play and picks up Andrews it’s a run by Lamar Jackson (which likely would work), and if Watt goes after Jackson, Andrews is going to be open. The Steelers reaction on these plays is to just send Watt at the quarterback and make Lamar Jackson beat T.J. Watt to make a play. They know there are going to be vulnerabilities if Jackson wins, but the Steelers consistent strategy against the Ravens is to bet on T.J. Watt doing his job better than Lamar Jackson does his. T.J. Watt showed here, as he has many times before, that their faith in him is well-founded.

The Point:

T.J. Watt is good. Really good. Like, ‘generational talent’ good. Not only that, he is now arguably the best football player in his family.

Of course, there are still five more games to play to shape the 2021 NFL regular season. But after his performance against the Ravens in what has been the Steelers biggest game so far of the season, Watt has put his name in the mix not only for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but possibly MVP consideration. While these accolades are great, the biggest thing is for T.J. Watt to continue to help the Steelers stack more games in the win column.