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How the loss of T.J. Watt affected the Steelers defense in Week 2

When the Steelers lost their All-Pro edge rusher in Week 2, there was a big change in the passing game.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered their first defeat of the 2021 NFL regular season in Week 2. Losing at home to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Steelers simply couldn’t overcome the loss of a number of key players on defense. With two starters being ruled out when inactives were announced, it was the loss of Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt during the game which was even more difficult to overcome.

Of course every loss is significant, but when the Steelers two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year finalist left the game with a groin injury, there was a significant difference in both the Steelers defense and the way the Raiders were attacking on offense. Exactly what did the Raiders do once Watt exited the game? That is the topic of this weeks Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.


The Stats Line:

This time around, our vertex may initially appear as if these two lines are diverging apart rather than coming together for a single point. In looking at the Pittsburgh Steelers pass rush on Sunday against the Raiders, the numbers actually show more pressure in the second half. In the first half, the Steelers had one sack and one quarterback hit. Both of these occurred before T.J. Watt left the game with about five minutes left in the second quarter. How do I know this? Because T.J. Watt was the only player to register a sack or a quarterback hit in the first half of the game for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the second half on Sunday, the Steelers managed one sack along with four quarterback hits. Those statistics belong mostly to Melvin Ingram as he had the sack and three of the quarterback hits with Jamir Jones getting the other.

So why was the pass rush less effective after T.J. Watt exited the game even though the stats show otherwise? It comes down to one other factor: Time. As we will see in the film, the time Derek Carr had to throw in the second half allowed him to have more success. How much more success? Carr was 16 of 21 for 263 yards and two touchdowns with a quarterback rating of 149.4 in the second half. In the first half, even with T.J. Watt missing the final five minutes, Carr was 12 of 16 for 119 yards, no touchdowns, and a 95.6 rating.

Although Carr’s time to throw is not recorded by half, Pro Football Focus does have it for the entire game. In Week 1, Carr was 2.63 seconds from snap to throw where in Week 2 he was at 2.54 seconds. If I were to venture a guess, I would say Carr had a much higher time to throw once T.J. Watt exited the game. Maybe the film will back this up.


The Film Line:

After a scorching start to the season in Buffalo, the Steelers pass rush was going to be even more important against the Raiders, especially with Joe Haden and Devin Bush out with injuries. T.J. Watt was ready to answer the call.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

Derek Carr doesn’t hold onto this ball very long at all, but it is still long enough for T.J. Watt to get hands on him after the throw. Watt just lets Carr know he is there, just a little something to think about when he’s dropping back in the pocket.

T.J. Watt is the pass rusher to the top of the screen.

Derek Carr knows Watt is coming, so on this play he steps up into the pocket to buy some more time. It doesn’t work, and T.J. Watt has a second straight game with a strip sack to start the 2021 season.

T.J. Watt is lined up behind the line, he’s moving around before the snap and settles in the middle of the line.

One of my keys to this game was pressure up the middle. Here we see even a bit of pressure up the middle makes Derek Carr uncomfortable, and that hop he takes as he throws pulls the ball short and incomplete. Watt drawing a double team on this rush was a big part of the pressure up the middle.

Foster Moreau is the tight end to the top of the screen.

This is the first play after T.J. Watt left the field with an injury. It’s also the first deep pass attempt of the game for the Raiders. Look at the pocket, there is no one in front of Derek Carr, and there is no one hitting him as he throws. Once T.J. Watt left the game the offensive line was able to keep Derek Carr clean and he started throwing balls downfield.

Foster Moreau is the receiver to the bottom of the screen. Jamir Jones is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

That’s Jamir Jones’ first QB hit of his career. Derek Carr takes his time with his release, there’s no reason to rush this throw and he takes a hit for it. After the Detroit Lions preseason game Ben Roethlisberger was asked about a hit he took, and he said it was fine, he held onto the ball and they made a play, so he was fine taking a hit.

With T.J. Watt out Derek Carr was comfortable taking more time in order to make a play, even if it meant taking a hit to do so. When T.J. Watt was on the field, Carr was getting rid of the ball much faster to keep T.J. Watt from making a play. Similar to how Ben Roethlisberger in 2020 and early this season has missed opportunities to make plays because he has to be concerned with the pass rush making plays.

Tre Norwood is the nickel back, he starts the play just off screen to the right.

Tre Norwood has played great as a 7th-round rookie. But make no mistakes, he’s not Mike Hilton. The Steelers were failing to pressure Carr and he was making plays, so they dialed up a nickel blitz to try and generate some pressure and get him off his rhythm. Instead Derek Carr is able to get this ball off before protecting himself from the hit coming, and the Raiders had a huge play to break the game open.

While this play leaves a lot to discuss with Witherspoon’s coverage and Minkah Fitzpatrick missing the deep threat, watch Derek Carr. The difference between getting hit as he throws and the pass being disrupted and a 61-yard TD is miniscule. Football is a game of fractions of a second. The Steelers don’t have Vince Williams and Mike Hilton anymore, Joe Schobert and Tre Norwood are good players, but they aren’t very good blitzers. With Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt out of the game the Steelers couldn’t generate enough pressure with a 4-man rush and they couldn’t get it blitzing either.


The Point:

T.J. Watt’s importance to the Steelers pass rush is greater than it has ever been. With Mike Hilton, Vince Williams, and even Bud Dupree gone, the Steelers aren’t as good of a blitzing team. They showed they can get pressure with 4 rushers, but that rush (especially with Stephon Tuitt out) is heavily reliant on Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt. Without Watt, Cameron Heyward and Melvin Ingram may not be able to create enough pressure to make this defense dominant.