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Aaron Donald was the right choice for Defensive Player of the Year

T.J. Watt had another great season, but he wasn’t the best player in 2020.

Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

T.J. Watt came in second in Defensive Player of the Year award voting for the 2021 season, and predictably, there’s a lot of upset people. T.J. Watt led the NFL in sacks, quarterback hits, and in tackles for a loss in 2020, an impressive feat. Watt also added 5 passes defended and an interception. No other defender recorded at least 10 sacks while also recording an interception or at least 5 passes defended.

It was a special year for the Steeler outside linebacker, leading the NFL in all three of the most relevant stats for players who primarily rush, while also showing the ability to make plays in coverage.

So why does the title of this article say Aaron Donald was the right choice? The easy answer is numbers don’t tell the full story, there is so much more to football than what statisticians record, and I’m going to try and cover that here.


Part 1: Positions matter

T.J. Watt is an edge rusher and a linebacker, Aaron Donald is a defensive lineman. Both move around a good bit, but Aaron Donald is an interior defensive lineman the vast majority of plays, and T.J. Watt is an edge rusher.

Take these two graphs that have been popping up a lot of places.

(both from Seth Walder’s twitter)

The farther the player is to the right side of the graph the more often they were listed as being double teamed. The farther to the top a player is, the more often they were credited with a pass-rush win.

J.J. Watt was double teamed more than any other edge rusher, and his brother T.J. Watt won his pass rushes more frequently than any other edge rusher. If you look straight down from T.J. Watt’s name you will find Bud Dupree, who was double teamed more often than T.J. Watt according to Next Gen Stats data. That is crazy, but it isn’t opposing offenses thinking to themselves and deciding that Bud Dupree and his ~12% pass rush win rate is more dangerous than T.J. Watt’s nearly 30% win rate. It’s because of Keith Butler.

I’ve talked in film rooms before about the Steelers blitzes and stunts and moving T.J. around and how a lot of the time one of the main payoffs is getting T.J. Watt a 1v1 matchup. It’s also one of the reasons the Steelers use Green Dog blitzes. If the Steelers send 5, the offense has three options:
1. Give every rusher, including Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt 1v1 matchups
2. Double a rusher and let someone run free at your quarterback (Vince Williams anyone?)
3. Keep extra players in to block.

When the offense decides #3 is the right choice, the Steelers green dog blitzes keep the numbers even, again forcing 1v1 matchups or creating free runners at the quarterback.

Bud Dupree faces more double teams than T.J. Watt because Keith Butler knows that a 1v1 for T.J. Watt is far more valuable than a 1v1 for Bud Dupree, and shapes his blitzes accordingly.

Now look at that same information for defensive tackles.

First look at the X-Axis, bottom of the graph. Look at the edge rusher double team rates and the defensive tackle double team rates. J.J. Watt led all edge rushers in double teams with right around 30%, Cameron Heyward is toward the bottom for defensive tackles with a nearly 50% double team rate.

Again this isn’t entirely offensive strategy, the nature of the position often involves lining up between the guard and center, and usually both make contact with the defensive tackle at some point. If you picture a stunt, you can also see why these numbers are so much higher across the board, a defensive tackle is often driving a blocker into another blocker, or trying to force two blockers to pay attention to him. Stephon Tuitt does a good job of this for the Steelers, and it is a big reason he shows up significantly higher in double team rate than Cameron Heyward and why T.J. Watt shows up lower than Bud Dupree.

Look at Aaron Donald on this graph. Donald led defensive tackles in both double team rate, and pass rush win rate. That is crazy. Outside of Donald, both charts show that the top tier pass rushers win more when they are double teamed less. And then Aaron Donald blows the grading curve out of the water.

So yes, T.J. Watt’s stats are better across the board than Aaron Donald’s were, but as Steeler fans who remember how good Aaron Smith was, and how good Casey Hampton was, It shouldn’t be hard to understand how playing on the interior line causes less impressive stats no matter how good the player is.


2. Film trumps stats

I love stats, I especially love advanced stats and analytical metrics, but stats can tell us results, they don’t tell you how a player got there. For stats, beating a double team and hitting the quarterback James Harrison style is the same as being the closest defender to the ball when the quarterback runs out of bounds inches behind the line of scrimmage, both get counted as a sack.

On film, T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald are not close, T.J. Watt is a generational talent, Aaron Donald plays like he belongs in the Reggie White, Mean Joe Green category of all-time greats. The greats among the greats. He played that way in 2020. T.J. Watt’s film is good, and often great, but is pales in comparison to what Donald does.

Aaron Donald (#99) is the defensive tackle to the right side of the screen.

Keep your eyes on Donald, don’t watch the ball. Three seconds after the ball is snapped Dak Prescott gets rid of the ball with Aaron Donald in his face, and after the throw the play ends up with Aaron Donald standing while all the guys who were in his way are on the grass. Donald makes heavy contact with three Cowboys blockers on this play, and it buys Prescott enough time to get the ball out.

The offensive lineman that is first matched up with Donald gets beat almost instantly, and when he tries to hold Donald, ends up getting flung to the ground like a rag doll without Donald even paying him attention, that’s how quick and powerful Aaron Donald is. The Center starts with a quick double on the other tackle then tries to pick up Donald but he’s too late, Donald is already deep in the backfield by that point. The running back does his play action fake and is immediately met by Aaron Donald. That’s ridiculous.

This is a frequent blocking strategy against Aaron Donald, a slightly delayed double team. Donald splits double teams so well that you want to make him commit to one side of a 1v1 block and then have the help meet him there. frequently with multiple players looking to help.

Aaron Donald is the defensive end to the right side of the screen, lined up across from #75 of the Giants.

Here the Giants have the guard and tackle on Donald, and the running back looking to help if he goes inside. The Rams know offenses do this so they don’t even send someone outside on Donald’s side, so the tackle is left looking to see if Donald is going to come back outside.

Aaron Donald, on this play drives the guard (Kevin Zeitler, he’s no slouch) back 8 yards by the time the quarterback takes off, the running back is no help at all. Collapsing the middle of the pocket and pushing the quarterback farther so the edges have easier angles is important, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt do a really good job of that and it is a huge part of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree’s sack numbers. But Aaron Donald is at a whole different level of pocket destruction.

I also want you to notice the other defensive tackle’s rush on this play. He seriously just crasher into the pile of people trying to block Donald. The Rams did this a lot, one rusher would just plow right into the bodies blocking Donald, and often that worked out well for the Rams.

Their entire defense is built around countering the incredible steps teams have to take to slow down Aaron Donald.

Aaron Donald starts the play on the “L” in the NFL logo.

The quarterback takes a three step drop and it’s already over. I love this play because Aaron Donald leaves his feet to make contact with the offensive lineman and wins. He goes high and around the outside shoulder of the guard, and it works because the wide set of Donald and the edge force the guard to come to him, and Donald is too quick to be caught.

This play Donald got a stat for. The first play was a completed pass for Dallas, the second his team mate finished the play that he destroyed. I didn’t want to just show sacks or tackles for a loss, but I wanted to show how good Donald is on every snap, that he doesn’t just collect stats, he drives the entire defense.

T.J. Watt is great, and I’ve highlighted multiple times plays he makes to set up team mates. But T.J. Watt doesn’t drive the defense, teams don’t worry about him the way they worry about and focus on Aaron Donald, and yet Aaron Donald still puts up great stats


Watt had his shot, and he came up short

After spending most of the 2020 season saying T.J. Watt didn’t have a real shot to win the DPOY award, in week 13 I said he had a real shot. Because with Bud Dupree down, he had the chance to do what Cameron Heyward did in 2019 when Stephon Tuitt went down. Elevate his game and get recognized nationally as not just one half of a great duo, but a truly elite player.

Cameron Heyward did it in 2019, T.J. Watt did not in 2020.

T.J. Watt’s stats dropped off, especially QB hits, and none of them went up. The team’s pass rush dropped off as well, to under 3 sacks a game. Bud Dupree has never had a season where the Steelers averaged under 3 sacks a game when he was active, and the Steelers have never had a stretch (multiple games) in that time without him where they averaged at least 3 a game. That’s not how you win the defensive version of the MVP award.

It also doesn’t help that T.J. Watt didn’t produce in the playoff loss against the Browns, when the Steelers had their first game without a sack since the 2017 season’s playoff loss to Jacksonville. Just 4 days short of three years with at least a sack in every game.


T.J. Watt did get robbed, it just wasn’t this year

If you want to say T.J. Watt should have won defensive player of the year and have me agree, just add “in 2019” to the end and I’m with you 100%. T.J. Watt, as good as he was in 2020, was even better in 2019, and in that season, his stats and film were better situated to take down Aaron Donald.

Sure, in 2020 Watt had 0.5 more sacks, 5 more QB hits and 9 more tackles for a loss. But in 2019 Watt had 1 more interception, 6 more forced fumbles and 4 more recovered fumbles. I’ll take 5 turnovers over 9 plays with lost yardage all day, every day. At the end of the season, when the Steelers were playing to make the playoffs even as the offense fell entirely apart Watt had 2 sacks, 2 TFL, 7 QB hits, 3 forced fumbles, a recovered fumble and 2 passes defended in the final 3 games, when the Steelers scored 10 points in each game and lost all three.

T.J. Watt stepped up and produced when the Steelers were fighting to play one more game in 2019, in 2020 he didn’t.


Conclusion

I’m not here to bash T.J. Watt and say he’s not good, he’s really good, he’s the best edge rusher in the NFL, and one of the truly elite players on the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s just not in the same tier as Aaron Donald was in 2020, that top tier of defensive players is just Aaron Donald, head and shoulders above everyone else.

In the same way that Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have awards because he spent the vast majority of his career in the AFC with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning taking home every award in the books, T.J. Watt is going to struggle to get a DPOY award with Aaron Donald showing he’s in a league of his own.