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J.J. Watt would be a perfect fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense

With his release, J.J. Watt could realistically join his brothers in Pittsburgh.

Houston Texans v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The J.J. Watt to the Steelers hype started when the Steelers drafted T.J. Watt, it took off when the Steelers signed Derek Watt, and with the Texans releasing J.J. Watt, the hype ;has never been higher.

There are a few hurdles to re-uniting the Watt brothers, the first is the salary cap, and it is a legit concern. I’m not going to cover all that, because I don’t want to. Other people can cover that, I want to talk about how J.J. Watt would fit in the Steelers defensive scheme.

I’ve heard a lot of people asking if the Steelers would cut/trade Tuitt or Heyward if J.J. Watt signed with the Steelers, and I am going to answer that, the answer is no. J.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt are both listed as defensive ends, and they are pretty similar in build too. But on the field, Stephon Tuitt is a defensive tackle and a 3-4 defensive end. J.J. Watt is a defensive end in any defensive front.

The key difference is Stephon Tuitt doesn’t play as an edge defender. If you think of the defensive front, the 5-7 defensive lineman and linebackers that a team uses on any given play, the one that is the farthest outside to either side is the edge defender. T.J. Watt on the line in a 4-man front, or off the ball in a 3-4 alignment is the guy farthest to the left, he’s the edge defender in both alignments.

Stephon Tuitt is a defensive tackle in a 4 man front, and a defensive end in a 3 man front, in both formations, T.J. Watt is outside of him, he’s an interior lineman.

J.J. Watt plays defensive end in both formations, which means in a 4-man front he is the edge defender, he plays the same spot his brother plays.

J.J. Watt is the defensive lineman to the right of the screen

That’s J.J. Watt playing the exact same position T.J. Watt plays the most. Houston still has 2 defensive lineman inside, J.J. Watt is the edge.

J.J. Watt (#99) is the defensive end to the left side of the screen, lined up over the tackle.

Here J.J. Watt is a 3-4 defensive end, lining up exactly where Stephon Tuitt would line up for the Steelers on this play.

According to Pro Football Focus, J.J. Watt played 702 snaps as the left edge defender, 134 as the right edge defender, 90 snaps at left end (not edge), 32 snaps at right end (not edge), and 28 snaps combined as a defensive tackle/nose tackle.

He played 84.5% of his snaps on the edge, 15.5% inside. He isn’t going to compete with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt most of the time.

Instead he’d be replacing Bud Dupree on those snaps. He played mostly on the left, but when J.J. Watt moved to the right side (where Dupree played), he was really good.

J.J. Watt is the defensive lineman farthest to the left on the screen.

J.J. Watt can still get to the quarterback in a hurry, no matter what side he lines up on.

J.J. Watt is the defensive lineman farthest to the right on the screen.

Here he shows the power, athleticism and skill that made him a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He’s not the elite player he was in his prime, but he’s still really good.

J.J. Watt is the defensive lineman farthest to the left side of the screen.

He can do it against the run as well.

If the Steelers signed J.J. Watt, he would be the defensive end in the Steelers 4 man fronts. Not replacing either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, but replacing Bud Dupree and taking snaps from Alex Highsmith.

Look at the above plays and I think you will see the appeal of that arrangement. J.J. Watt isn’t a DPOY candidate, but he brings everything the Steelers got from Bud Dupree to these 4 man fronts. That’s enormous when you look at the drop off in the Steelers defense when Bud Dupree was hurt.

The Steelers used nickel and dime sets 60% of the time in 2020. J.J. Watt would be the right edge defender on those plays. The Steelers went with a 7 man front 40% of the time. In those 7 man front formations the Steelers primarily used a 3-4 look.

J.J. Watt is the defensive end to the left side of the screen, outside of the tackle.

This is a passing down with the Ravens doing what they do, playing extra tight ends and then spreading the field. I like this play because J.J. Watt’s stunt inside creates a sack for his team mate. When Watt gets inside he has leverage and is going to beat the blocker reaching out to grab him. Lamar Jackson sees that and takes off to his right, where he is sacked. J.J. Watt, for his part, spins back outside to cover Jackson’s potential escape lane. The Steelers use a ton of stunts on passing downs, and J.J. Watt is really good at them. He would work incredibly well in Keith Butler’s defense, especially working next to Cameron Heyward on the right side.

J.J. Watt is the defensive end to the left side of the screen, lined up over the tackle.

I always try to include a play where the player loses their matchup but still makes an impact. Here the guard gets the better of J.J. Watt, but Watt recovers and batts the pass down.

At this point I want to talk about snaps. In this hypothetical situation the Steelers have Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt, J.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith vying for snaps in the defensive front. The Steelers averaged 4.4 DL/OLBs per play. (60% of the time 4 men, 40% of the time 5 men) If we convert that to percentages, the front 4/5 have 440% of snaps to divvy up between them. Depth players take up about 40% of snaps, guys like Isaiah Buggs, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, Henry Mondeaux, etc. That leaves 400% of snaps for the main 5 guys. That means Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, J.J. Watt, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith could divide up those snaps and all play 80% of snaps. In reality Alex Highsmith would probably be in the 60-70% range as the primary outside linebacker across from T.J. Watt in 3-4 sets, and the #3 defensive end in their 4 man fronts, leaving some more snaps for the other guys. Both Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt play right around 80% of snaps when healthy, and T.J. Watt plays around 85%. J.J. Watt was playing over 90% of snaps for the Texans, and he may benefit from taking a few more breaks at his age.

The last thing I want to cover is one of the more unique formations the Steelers used in 2020. The Steelers would come out in 3-4 personnel, and then line up in a 4-3 look, with one of the outside linebackers moving behind the defensive line like an inside linebacker.

Week 9, 1st quarter, 10:42. Look at the formation, and how Bud Dupree enters the play from screen right.

This formation changes due to the Cowboys sending an extra player outside, pulling outside linebacker Bud Dupree out with him. You can see Cameron Heyward reset himself and #96 Isaiah Buggs and the Steelers are in a 4 man front with two linebackers behind them. It’s the Steelers normal nickel look only Cameron Heyward is now the edge and Bud Dupree is lined up as the nickelback.

Week 9, 1st quarter, 7:19. Look at the players on the defensive line.

This is not an adjustment, this is design. Cameron Heyward is the left end, Stephon Tuitt is inside him as the defensive tackle, and behind them is Bud Dupree lined up as in inside linebacker. The Cowboys run the quarterback out to Heyward’s side, and while the pass is incomplete, imagine that Heyward is lined up where Isaiah Buggs (#96) is lined up and that left edge is manned by J.J. Watt, who has more agility and speed than Heyward.

J.J. Watt as a Pittsburgh Steeler would allow the team to give Alex Highsmith reduced pressure, give T.J. Watt a running mate that can equal what Bud Dupree did, and give them a defensive end that would allow them to use their 4-3 looks more effectively.

If they can work out the money side, it would be a great signing.