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T.J. Watt sack party, Part 1: What makes T.J. Watt great

Looking at every sack from T.J. Watt during the 2020 Steelers regular season.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

T.J. Watt led the Steelers, and the NFL with 15 sacks in 2020. To honor his accomplishment, and to look at how the Steelers generate sacks as a team, I wanted to look at every sack Watt recorded this past season.

I’m going to cover 2 sacks in each of these articles (8 in total) and break down what the Steelers were doing on defense, and how T.J. Watt ended up getting sacks.

T.J. Watt didn’t record a sack in week 1, so the first two sacks come in week 2, against the Denver Broncos, and an overmatched right tackle named Elijah Wilkinson.

Week 2, second quarter, 7:39. T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

Before we get to T.J. Watt, let’s look at the rest of the defense. The Steelers are in Dime on 3rd and 4. Devin Bush is the only linebacker and the Steelers switch Cameron Sutton into a deep half zone (deep safety top of screen) and put Terrell Edmunds (third DB from bottom) in coverage on KJ Hamler. It’s cover-2 man, with a 4-man rush.

It is interesting to note the outside leverage from Mike Hilton (second DB from bottom of screen) and inside leverage from Terrell Edmunds, Hilton jams from that leverage, expecting a quick out-breaking route, while Edmunds is expecting his receiver to cut into the middle of the field. The receivers do the opposite, and both defenders recover well to limit the passing window to their receiver. This certainly isn’t a coverage sack though . . .

Quarterback Jeff Driskel is in for Drew Lock, and following his eyes you can see him read the safeties first, making sure they stayed in the pre-snap 2-deep (middle open) look they started in, then he looks to his right, then to his left before being sacked. If you look at the first clip, I think this is a mistake in his progression, as the 12 yard hook they are running to his right is bracketed by Cameron Sutton’s deep zone and Joe Haden’s trail technique. But honestly, that doesn’t even matter. There isn’t a receiver open yet when T.J. Watt pressures Driskel and sends him running into Cameron Heyward.

T.J. Watt shows off why he’s a great edge rusher perfectly on his first sack of the season. He gets his usual great burst off the snap, gets upfield even faster than Bud Dupree does, and converts that speed to power as he looks like he’s going into a bull rush with his head forward and both arms going into the tackle’s chest. He then transitions that into a dip-and-rip move, flattening his rush and getting past his blocker to create pressure that will get both him and Cameron Heyward a half-sack.

There are 4 parts of this play that show why T.J. Watt is so difficult to stop.

First, his elite burst off the snap. T.J. Watt times up snaps really well, and the acceleration in his first few steps is incredible.

Second, he turns that speed into power efficiently and effectively. A real weapon against offensive lineman forced to drop quickly to keep up with him, therefore moving laterally and often higher in their stance.

Third, he has a natural feel for pass rushing, transitioning to the right move for the situation. On this play Watt’s blocker sees his arms come out to drive him back, and comes down on those arms to cut off Watt’s length and redirect that speed-to-power force downward. As he does, T.J. Watt goes into a rip move, getting his right arm under the tackle’s armpit, driving up and through to the quarterback.

The fourth part that makes T.J. Watt so hard to stop is his team mates. Stephon Tuitt shows his usual great bull rush, but look at Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree. Cameron Heyward takes one step to the guard, then attacks the left side of the center. He gets his hand outside the center’s left arm and attacks that side of his body. Meanwhile Bud Dupree takes a wide angle to start and then spins inside. Heyward and Dupree are running a double attack on that guard. The center can’t hold Heyward on his own, and if Bud Dupree lands his spin move he’s coming inside the tackle and into the pocket. The guard has to choose who to help, his center or his tackle. Here the guard chooses to help block Bud Dupree and Cam Heyward muscles his way into the pocket where he will earn a half-sack.

Notice how Dupree reacts when he sees the guard is there. He stops, then spins back outside. He sees Watt pressuring, he sees Heyward and Tuitt collapsing the pocket and he knows the only possible escape route is to his side, and he moves to cut that off. This is a straight up 4-man rush, being executed by 4 really good rushers who are smart, disciplined and work together well.

T.J. Watt would record his first full sack later in that same quarter.

Week 2, second quarter, 0:27. T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

This is cover-1 man. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the only deep safety, and the Steelers are rushing 5. It looks like the Steelers are pattern matching to the bottom of the screen. Devin Bush is dropping to start the play, Terrell Edmunds waits for the slot receiver to come to him before committing to covering him, and Steven Nelson starts deep and drops further at the snap. This points to pattern matching, a staple of the Steelers 2019 and 2020 defenses, and something the Broncos would attack later in the game. Another staple of the Steelers defense is shown really well on this play by Vince Williams. (#98, white socks and arm sleeve)

Vince Williams is “hug blitzing” here. He approaches the line like he’s blitzing, but is watching the running back the whole time. When that back slips out of the pocket instead of committing to a block, Williams calls off his blitz and covers the back. The Steelers front seven are so effective in large part because they are smart, disciplined, and well coached.

Another reason they are so effective? T.J. Watt.

T.J. Watt learned from that first sack that he was beating his tackle upfield, and after a good number of effective inside rushes to slow the tackle’s drop, Watt unleashes this insane burst off the line that beat his blocker so badly he barely had to dip to get past him.

This is one of the most clearly a one-man effort of a sack you will find, and it utilized his #1 strength. T.J. Watt’s pass rush moves are really good, but not the best, he’s not an elite technician. He isn’t a James Harrison with elite strength either. What T.J. Watt brings to the field is elite athleticism, especially his burst off the line, which is the number one reason he’s one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the NFL.