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T.J. Watt Sack Party 3: Welcome to the Machine

Looking at every sack from T.J. Watt’s 2020 season.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

T.J. Watt has 49.5 sacks in his 4 year long career, that’s the 6th most of any player since 1982 when sacks started being tracked reliably. The players around him on that list are hall of fame level pass rushers. During that time the Steelers have led the NFL in sacks every season. Which brings up one of the topics I wanted to cover in this film series, how much of T.J. Watt’s production is based on the team he’s on, and how much of the team success is based on having T.J. Watt.

We’re now in Week 5, when we get T.J. Watt’s first “mop-up” sack, where he did not create any pressure, but recorded the sack.

Week 5, first quarter, 13:53. T.J. Watt is the edge defender to the top of the screen.

The Steelers start with both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds up closer to the line of scrimmage in a split alignment. Right before the snap both safeties move. The Steelers are in cover-1, they just gave a little disguise to start the play. The coverage is solid, no one is really open when Carson Wentz bails on the pocket. The pass rush, as usual was the star of the play.

Let’s start with Devin Bush. In part 2 I talked about the Steelers use of “hug blitzes”, and on this play you can see Devin Bush line up like he is blitzing, but right across from the running back.

This is a hug blitz look, but Devin Bush isn’t hug blitzing, he is straight up blitzing. Terrell Edmunds started the play looking like he had a deep half assignment, but he’s covering the running back, and is coming up to hug blitz on the play when the back realizes what is going on and gets back to engage him. The back is completely neutralized, and the stunt Devin Bush runs with Cameron Heyward helps create pressure that drives Carson Wentz from the pocket.

T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt also run a stunt, but the blockers pick it up, and Watt is a non-factor, until Wentz leaves the pocket. This sack is created by the pass rush scheme and both Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward crushing the pocket. T.J. Watt is the beneficiary of the Steelers pass rush machine on this play.

Week 7, third quarter, 14:55. T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

We’re going to look at everything but T.J. Watt first. This is a max-protect pass play, a common one the Steelers faced, with two routes attacking the free safety by forcing him to either cover deep or underneath and leaving the other receiver 1v1. Interesting on this one you can see Joe Haden signaling for a switch with Minkah Fitzpatrick when his receiver cuts inside (a common tactic for the Steelers because of how good Fitzpatrick is at it) but Fitzpatrick is committed to the deep route because teams had been taking that shot a lot in recent games. If Tannehill has time, he has an open receiver.

To cover the front 7, first look at the pre-snap motion and the Steelers reaction.

Edmunds follows the tight end and returns with him. Basic man defense, and that’s good for the play they want to run. But watch how Edmunds and the linebackers handle the actual play.

In the actual play they all read Derrick Henry to start, then pick up their players once they see Tannehill keep the ball. Edmunds follows Henry out to the right, Vince Williams picks up the fullback, and Robert Spillane sees the tight end blocking and rushes in an open gap. The level of execution from the inside linebackers and Terrell Edmunds was a strength on the defense, one that overcame what on paper looked like a weak linebacker room after Devin Bush went down. When I talk about the Steeler’s pass rush machine, coaching and execution behind the D-line is a huge part of it.

As for the rush, the Steelers rush slanted to the strong side (right side of screen), with Bud Dupree containing the back side. The Titans do a good job blocking into the slant, watch Cameron Heyward get driven to the right side of the pocket, but Bud Dupree is driving his blocker into the pocket again, and even if T.J. Watt doesn’t get through, Tannehill is about to have Bud Dupree in his face and Robert Spillane coming free behind him.

T.J. Watt does get through.

That’s ridiculous. Watt is engaging with the right tackle when he sees Derrick Henry coming to help, he switches strategies, moving his hands to get one on Henry and the other attacks the tackle’s right elbow.

There’s a reason lineman are taught to keep their elbow’s tight to their body, a shot to the elbow pulls your torso and is an easy way to get your opponent off balance. The tackle’s arm isn’t out wide, but it is extended, and Watt is cutting inside, so he can attack that elbow and the result is a lineman on the ground and T.J. Watt taking a swing at the football before recording a sack.

T.J. Watt shows once again his natural feel for rushing the passer, and the time it takes him to see what is happening, adjust to it, and beat it is incredible. In real time it’s hard to even see what he is doing at times. I love Bud Dupree, he’s my favorite post-2010 Steeler, (seriously, look at him dominate the fullback and tight end in the above clip) but he’s not doing what T.J. Watt does. Cameron Heyward is frequently considered a top-3 Defensive tackle in the NFL, and he can’t do it like that. T.J. Watt is a special player, and while he benefits a good deal from playing on the Steelers, that doesn’t take away from how impressive he can be all by himself.


Previously on the T.J. Watt Sack Party: