There’s no getting around it — the Pittsburgh Steelers are not the same football team when Trent Jordan Watt is not on the field. The 2017 1st Round Pick is arguably the best draft selection by the Steelers since 2004, when a certain big-bodied QB from Miami of Ohio came to the Steel City. As Coach Tomlin says, his resume speaks for itself.
But can we actually calculate in a tangible way what “the T.J. Watt effect” really is for this team? For transcendent players like Watt, it’s not just about the raw stats. His mere presence on the field brings out better play and higher confidence in his teammates. Think about the sudden arrival of an elite QB, like what Tom Brady did for the Buccaneers, or Peyton Manning did for the Broncos. It’s on that level.
Let’s dive into the ins-and-outs of “the T.J. Watt effect” from a few different angles to determine his true impact.
THE STATS EFFECT
Since joining the Steelers in 2017, the team has played 78 games with T.J. Watt in the lineup for all or part of the contest. They have endured 11 matchups with him unavailable. Here’s one set of stats to look at, per statmuse.com:
Yeah, it’s pretty shocking, even on the surface. Just starting with the win percentages is eye-opening, as the team has only won a single game without him since 2017. The defense gives up almost a TD more per game to opponents without #90 in the lineup. Dig a little deeper and we can see why. The defense racks up 3.5 sacks and 1.6 takeaways per game with Watt compared to a mere 1.4 and 0.8 respectively without him in that span. Where’s the splash plays Mike T. craves? That’s un unreal disparity for taking away just one player on a unit with 10 other contributors. We won’t even dive into the real deep stuff like PFF’s pressure rate and Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA metrics. You can imagine, though, they tell a similar story.
What’s really astounding is what his presence means for the offense. In games he’s played, the Steelers are scoring 23.3 points/game. And lest you say, yeah, but that was with Big Ben under center for all but one game... That one game was Week 1 against the Bengals. The Steelers scored 23 points in that game. Without him, the offense can only muster 16.6 points/game. This is directly related to the defense’s ability to create short fields and extra possessions for their offense with Watt on the field. Number 90’s ability to create havoc and improve the play of his teammates correlates to more scoring opportunities and more points. Watt improves ALL areas of his team, and that leads us to the next angle to discuss.
THE INTANGIBLE EFFECT
Without Watt we’ve seen an overmatched defensive backfield get torched because the Front 7’s secondary contributors like Alex Highsmith have been forced to replace DPOY-level production. As we’ve seen, that kind of production is not sustainable in that situation.
On the other side of the ball, we knew the offense wouldn’t be the reason the team won games. We were hoping an opportunistic defense could produce more scoring opportunities and keep the team in games against superior opponents. Without that dimension during Watt’s absence, the O’s issues were laid bare and the result is a 2-6 Steelers squad on the brink of a lost 2022 season.
The Steelers entire defensive philosophy for 2022 was predicated on another All-Pro effort from T.J. Watt leading a suffocating 4-man pass rush that allowed the rest of the defense’s playmakers to take advantage of their matchups. Minkah Fitzpatrick is freed up to jump routes with opposing QBs forced to make rash decisions with T.J. breathing down their necks. Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith are unchained monsters with Watt demanding the attention of the opposing offensive line and dictating the offensive scheme. A suspect CB group doesn’t have to be elite on the backend to shut down opposing passing games.
That’s the kind of play Steelers fans hung their hopes on for 2022. With Watt likely back in the fold for Week 10, we could see that winning formula again for the first time since Week 1.
It’s not ideal for one player to mean so much to a team, but when that one player re-enters the action, it can change a team’s entire outlook. T.J. Watt’s return is the definition of a game-changer for the Steelers, who have a chance to do more than just play for pride over their remaining 9 games. I for one am excited for that chance.