Twenty-six sacks, 33 tackles for a loss, 66 QB hits. Seven NFL teams had fewer sacks than the left side of the Steelers line. Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt were special in 2020, dominating opposing offenses week in and week out.
I covered Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree two weeks ago, and they were a remarkable duo as well, just in a very different way. While Heyward and Dupree are more controlled and tactical in their play and usage, Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt look almost reckless in comparison. It’s a great combination, with opposing teams knowing Tuitt and Watt are coming, while Dupree and Heyward keep them trapped.
Defending the best play in the NFL
Tuitt and Watt’s usage show up best when the Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens use misdirection and their vaunted modification of the old triple option, or Veer play to slow down and take the teeth out of aggressive defenders. It’s the play the Ravens offense with Lamar Jackson is based on, and they run that play a ton of times every game, it is the cornerstone of one of the best offenses in the NFL. Most defenses slow down to make sure they don’t going to get beat by it, but the Steelers, with Tuitt and Watt, just get more aggressive.
1st quarter, 12:59, Stephon Tuitt (#91) is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen, T.J. Watt (#90) is lined up outside of him.
And that’s your masterclass in how to defend an option run. Just tackle the quarterback and the running back. Doesn’t matter who has the ball. The Veer involves reading the edge defender and handing off if he is rushing the QB, or the QB keeping it and heading outside if the edge is pinching inside, going for the RB.
The Steelers solution is to send T.J. Watt at the quarterback no matter what.
Option run? Watt is hitting your QB.
Play-action Pass? Watt is hitting your QB.
Oh, you handed that one off? Watt is still hitting your QB.
Punt team on the field? Watt is on your sideline hitting your QB.
Okay, maybe not the last one. It is a common sight in Ravens games for the quarterback to be complaining to officials that he is getting hit on every play, whether he has the ball or not. Because when you make the QB a run threat on every play, then it’s hard to tell the refs that that play was one where you weren’t a running option. It’s a great way to make the quarterback uncomfortable, but there are drawbacks.
1st quarter, 7:17. Stephon Tuitt is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen, T.J. Watt is lined up outside of him.
There’s multiple options built into this play. Handoff to the back, keep it and run, keep it and make a little pass to the sweep motion man. T.J. Watt going right to Lamar Jackson takes away two of those options, but it also leaves the Steelers a man down in run defense. Fortunately, Joe Haden reads the play and fills the run gap to limit the gain to 3 yards.
If you look closer, the run isn’t designed to go outside like that, look at the blocking here
This is a run to the right side of the screen, but Heyward and Dupree have anything outside locked down (Both have their outside hands free, you aren’t winning there) and that tempting inside lane is dead because Stephon Tuitt gets inside position on his blocker and slows down the convoy, while keeping his right arm free. The Ravens have 7 blockers to the run side, but Tuitt, Heyward and Dupree all win their blocks enough to turn the runner back.
The runner is quick to cutback here because even though T.J. Watt on that still image is in great position to blow up a cutback, the Ravens know the Steelers are sending him after Lamar Jackson. I’m showing you the plays that worked well for the Steelers, but there’s a reason the Ravens kept running to that side of the field, because when Stephon Tuitt couldn’t win the play for the Steelers, the Ravens got yards. In week 17 of 2019 and week 8 of 2020 the Ravens ran for 488 yards. But while they beat Devlin Hodges when he had been buried under the rookie wall, they lost to Ben Roethlisberger in 2020, largely because Lamar Jackson was off his game. Maybe he didn’t like getting hit every play?
2nd quarter, 0:25, Stephon Tuitt is the defensive tackle right in the middle of the play, T.J. Watt is the edge defender to the right side.
The Ravens also run a swapped Veer, where the running back is taking the ball outside, and Lamar Jackson keeping it means a run up the middle. This is where a lot of Lamar Jackson’s biggest runs come from, the defense gets used to the normal Veer, and this switch throws the defense off. You can see Watt stop his rush because of the swapped roles, the running back is his on this play, and that let’s Lamar Jackson escape Watt for a play.
But that doesn’t save him from Stephon Tuitt, who sheds his block to bring down Jackson. Credit to Robert Spillane (#41) on this play, filling the lane to the right to force Jackson towards Tuitt and Heyward.
3rd quarter, 13:17, Stephon Tuitt is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen, T.J. Watt is lined up outside of him, off the ball, behind Bud Dupree.
The Ravens run outside zone here, if you watch the offensive lineman, they try to catch or “reach” a defender farther to the play side than they are, a major clue to outside zone.
Look at Stephon Tuitt, he’s play side and he needs to get outside, but he also wants to slow down the blocking. He fights through the initial contact that is trying to set up the reach block, and keeps the reach blocker from getting him squared up, keeping his outside arm free while he slows down the blocks going to the play side. When the running back passes him he can run to the play because the defender would have to make an obvious hold to stop him with that outside arm free.
T.J. Watt isn’t a great play side run defender, he’s more burst and agility than power, but on this play he does his job, getting in the way, pinching the run lanes while Tuitt runs down the ball carrier.
3rd quarter, 3:04, T.J. watt is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen, inside of Cameron Sutton.
This article has been Stephon Tuitt heavy, and to be honest, any T.J. Watt film room is going to be Stephon Tuitt heavy because Tuitt is that kind of a disruptive force, T.J. Watt is either utilizing that disruption or moving around it on most plays. But here is a run defense play that is all T.J. Watt.
This play may not look like a big deal, Watt runs down inside runs when he’s unblocked a lot, one of my favorite things to see every week is teams thinking they can leave Dupree or Watt unblocked because they aren’t running at them. It doesn’t work well.
But this play is even better. T.J. Watt is responsible for the running back, just like the play earlier where he paused in his rush, this time he gets inside far enough that he plays both the potential ball carriers at once. The entire design of this play, the entire design of the Veer from its conception over 50 years ago is to take the edge rusher out of the play without blocking him, creating a numbers advantage in the run play. The edge isn’t supposed to be able to do this. This offensive design has been a successful staple for 50 years, and is working very well in the NFL. It works because players can’t do what T.J. Watt did on this play. In my opinion this is T.J. Watt’s best play of his career so far. It’s that incredible of a play, he just makes it look easy.
T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt’s 26 sacks didn’t happen by chance, they are just that good. They were on pace to put up similar numbers in 2019 before Tuitt went down with injury, and in 2020, with both healthy, they dominated.
First quarter, 0:57. Stephon Tuitt is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen, T.J. Watt is outside him.
More Stephon Tuitt dominance. No edge rusher sack is as good as that right there. The guard got beat so bad he’s hanging onto Tuitt’s leg as he hits Lamar Jackson. This is the man with the best smile on the Steelers. I bring that up because like Hines Ward, Tuitt smiles as he knocks your soul out of your chest, and that is Steeler football.
Compare Tuitt on this play, and T.J. Watt’s aggressive rush around the edge to Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree on the other side with their contain and then pressure rush. Can’t emphasize enough how much each of these men made each of his fellow rushers better. Best 4 year stretch of pass rush in NFL history.
3rd quarter, 0:10, Stephon Tuitt is the defensive end to the left side of the screen, T.J. Watt is outside him.
This play shows the value of containment rushing. Jackson is safe in the pocket, even with both Tuitt and Watt shrinking his pocket until Isaiah Buggs (#96) gets into the middle. Cameron Heyward is alone, tasked with containing that side of the pocket by himself. He isn’t even trying to pressure Jackson here, he’s just there to thwart any escape. Jackson knows his time is up, Watt or Tuitt are going to get free and he needs to move, Heyward has one side shut down, and Buggs moving into the middle forces him to try and escape toward Tuitt and Watt.
Look at this picture:
That doesn’t scream “Run at Stephon Tuitt” does it? But Buggs is already working his blocker to get into the middle, and half a second later. . .
That gap between Tuitt and Buggs is now his only hope. The guard in the middle isn’t going to save you, Buggs would force any run that way right to Cameron Heyward, and by then you are getting swarmed. If Tuitt didn’t throw his blocker aside like a ragdoll (In this image Tuitt has just gotten his arm free, that guard is toast) Lamar Jackson might have made it.
When the Steelers coverage holds for a few seconds, that pocket is a bad place to be.
Most of the time Watt and Tuitt’s sacks are simple plays, either a really nice win on a pass rush move gets them to the QB quick, or the coverage and containment the rest of the defense provides creates opportunities for them. But there are also some really fun plays from Tuitt and Watt.
1st quarter, 0:21. T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen, Stephon Tuitt is the tackle right above him on screen.
The Ravens help out their line by getting a chip on T.J. Watt, because his explosiveness off the line is a huge weapon and makes life miserable for offensive tackles.
But on this play Stephon Tuitt sees there’s no Watt off his left shoulcer and rusher right at the tackle, then spins backwards and puts his arms out, boxing out two offensive lineman while T.J. Watt dips around him to create one of the most dangerous passes a quarterback can throw. The Ravens got lucky and Mark Andrews pulled in that ball for a three yard gain.
When a three yard gain on 3rd and 18 is a lucky result for the offense, that’s a win for the defense.
I love that play. I love it when the rushers see opportunity and create havoc for the offense, turning a chip into a stunt? That’s great football.
4th quarter, 0:52. Stephon Tuitt is the defensive tackle to the right side of the screen.
With the clock running out and the Steelers leading by 4, the Ravens needed a touchdown to win. Instead they got Stephon Tuitt driving their center into Lamar Jackson’s lap for this incomplete pass.
4th quarter, 0:08. T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the right side of the screen.
And when they double team Tuitt, they get Cameron Heyward crashing the pocket and T.J. Watt disrupting the throw after one of the worst “ghost” moves I’ve seen actually works well enough to get him to the quarterback.
Really, T.J. Watt is explosive enough to win this rush with a pass rush move that is just bad. I mean he basically just runs and the tackle can’t keep up.
The combination of Stephon Tuitt’s disruptive dominance and T.J. Watt’s ridiculous athletic talent and his lightning fast reaction time makes them the most productive pair of pass rushers to play on the same side in the NFL.
The good news is we’ve got at least one more year of those two together.