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What can Pittsburgh Steelers fans expect from T.J. Watt in 2021?

The Steelers’ top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft continues to improve, but is a plateau approaching?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected T.J. Watt with their first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Wisconsin, no one really knew what to expect. Mike Tomlin talked about how every team “needs a Watt”, Watt himself was a Scouting Combine freak of nature, but would his performance translate to life in the NFL?

If the fact Watt put veteran James Harrison on the bench almost from Day 1 wasn’t an indication of what to expect, his rookie season proved he certainly belongs in the professional ranks. What came next, and every year after, was a steady progression, always improving.

Just take a look at his stats from his rookie season through 2020 at several key statistics for a pass rusher:

2017 (R)
Games: 15
Total Tackles: 54
TFL: 10
Sacks: 7
INT: 1
Forced Fumbles: 1
QB Hits: 13

Games: 16
Total Tackles: 68
TFL: 12
Sacks: 13
INT: 0
Forced Fumbles: 6
QB Hits: 21

Games: 16
Total Tackles: 55
TFL: 14
Sacks: 14.5
INT: 2
Forced Fumbles: 8
QB Hits: 36

Games: 15
Total Tackles: 53
TFL: 23
Sacks: 15
INT: 1
Forced Fumbles: 2
QB Hits: 41

When you see these numbers, and how they constantly improve, it makes you wonder if Watt can continue on this upward trajectory, or if a statistical plateau is approaching in 2021.

There are a lot of key factors into whether Watt can continue on his current war path, one which had him a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons, or if he will see a small decrease in his production.

The most obvious factor is the unknown without Bud Dupree. Dupree was the Robin to Watt’s Batman, and the two worked well together on their respective edges. When Dupree was lost for the season due to a torn ACL vs. the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field in Week 13, here is what Watt’s statistics looked like without Dupree:

Games: 5 (including the playoffs)
Sacks: 4
Total Tackles: 18
TFL: 7
INT: 0
Forced Fumbles: 2
QB Hits: 9

While those aren’t disappointing statistics, you have to wonder if Watt can continue to increase his statistics with Alex Highsmith, not Dupree, opposite him in 2021 and likely beyond.

Outside of sack production, is it even fair for fans to believe Watt will be able to continue to ascend the way he has throughout his first four seasons in the NFL? At what point will his statistics start to level out? No one would complain if Watt continued to raise the proverbial bar, but if he only gets 14 sacks in 2021 will it be viewed as a disappointment?

To get a feel for sack numbers, I took a look at James Harrison’s career sack totals. What was astonishing to me was Harrison only had double-digit sacks three times in his career. He recorded 16 sacks in 2008, and followed that up with 10 in 2009 and 10.5 in 2010. Those three seasons were the only years he was able to record 10 or more sacks, something Watt has done the past three seasons.

Maybe Watt is just a different beast altogether, and maybe looking back at other players, even Harrison who leads the Steelers franchise in most sacks recorded, doesn’t do Watt justice. There is no doubt the Steelers’ defense will not look the same this year. Not only did they lose Dupree, but the losses of Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, for different reasons, will lead to a reshaped secondary. Throw in some likely draft picks and the Steelers defense might not just look different, but they might play differently too.

What is your prediction for Watt in 2021? Does he continue to keep raising the bar? Personally, I think you might see a dip in sack totals, but he will continue to be a dominant player for the Steelers. Let us know your thoughts on Watt’s 2021 season in the comments below, and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft.