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Are Derek Watt’s contributions on special teams enough to secure a roster spot?

The special teams captain is a big contributor to the third phase of the game.

Denver Broncos vs Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers are chugging on through the 2022 offseason. Looking at a number of players and positions as the roster has fluctuated, sometimes it’s players the Steelers have on their roster taking a step that can really add to the coming season. While players who are in a starting role are important, so are those who serve in other capacities. While Derek Watt player listed strictly as a fullback, his usage on the Steelers comes more on special teams. But are his contributions enough to secure him a roster spot? This is the subject for this week’s 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:

Although it seems as if I’ve been talking about Derek Watt more than normal in recent weeks, I admit that it was Geoffrey‘s desire to cover his special teams play that led to this week’s article. Although the focus is going to be on special teams, it’s quite simple to very briefly give Watt’s offensive statistics with the Steelers. After having zero touches in 12 games in 2020 during the regular season, Watt had two rushes for 2 yards in the 2020 postseason. In 2021, Derek Watt appeared in all 17 games and had one rush for 1 yard and three receptions on three targets for 15 yards during the regular season.

So why would we not cover Watt’s offensive capabilities? Looking strictly at the snap counts it tells us exactly why it should not be the focus of his play on the field. In 2020, Derek Watt played 52 offensive snaps compared to 213 special team snaps. In 2021, as the Steelers special teams captain, Watt saw 86 offensive snaps to 332 special team snaps. Looking at just last season, 80% of the time Derek Watt stepped on the field it was for special teams.

In 2020, Derek Watt had eight tackles on the season, one of which was for a safety. In the 2021 season, Watt saw 14 tackles with his work on special teams.

While the stats tell a small part of the story, let’s check the film to see what Derek Watt contributes to special teams for the Steelers.

The Film Line:

While most positions give fans stats that can form a foundation to evaluate, special teams really doesn’t. You can look at tackles, but tackles aren’t a good judge of special teams play, and are often much more about your role on a special teams unit than a measure of how well you played.

I want to preface this section by saying that I chose clips that show Derek Watt having an impact on the play while doing things he consistently does well. Special teams are much more chaotic than defense or offense, and consistently good play isn’t easy to show on the majority of plays that end in touchbacks and fair catches.

Steelers vs. Packers, 3rd quarter, 4:46

Derek Watt (#44) starts the play right next to the 40 yard line numbers to the bottom of the screen.

Derek Watt is the left end on most returns, and his job is to pick up the first player through the initial blockers. Watt brings good power at the point of attack in this role. He stands up his man and forces him inside, then follows that initial block to push the defender farther up field. If you look at the gap the returner heads through, Derek Watt is responsible for the inside border of that run lane. Of course this is an example where far more than just Derek Watt’s job went right, but without Watt’s work here, that lane doesn’t exist.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 2nd quarter, 10:04

Derek Watt (#44) is the third player from the top of the screen for the Steelers.

Watt comes from the opposite side of the field, engages a blocker right at the hashmarks, drives that player to the numbers, and then gets off the block and makes the hit on the returner. The returner goes down and Watt gets a special teams tackle on the play.

He uses his solid combination of speed and power to get to the spot he needs to be in to contain the return and makes the play. Watt’s role on special teams is often based on his ability to win power battles while still moving fast enough to stay with the play. But it is his awareness and responsibility that makes him a special teams ace, and captain.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 0:47

Derek Watt (#44) is the second player from the top of the screen, on the line, for the Steelers.

It’s really hard to follow Watt from pre-snap on this play. So I’ll throw in some screen captures to help. Apologies for the quality, but no other angle shows the whole play, and NFL Gamepass has terrible quality for their all-22 film angle.

Right after the punt, as the guys on the line start to run out and cover the punt, Derek Watt is the middle guy in a cluster of Steelers and he’s releasing to the middle of the field.

As that cluster reaches midfield Watt runs behind Ulysees Gilbert III and can be seen pushing him with his right arm. Gilbert heads straight up field, Watt crosses behind him and will end up making the tackle.

This is a fantastic play by Watt, he gets himself and Gilbert in the right positions to contain the return that gets past the initial defenders. But more than that, look at the players that are tasked with blocking Watt and Gilbert. Watt’s switch with Gilbert makes Gilbert’s blocker approach at a sharper angle and Gilbert easily evades the block, while Watt runs directly behind his blocker and his blocker completely loses track of him and this return ends 3 yards short of the 25-yard line for a net of 44 yards.

Steelers @ Bengals, 3rd quarter, 1:16

Derek Watt (#44) is the second player from the top of the screen, on the line, for the Steelers.

This time we are fortunate that the broadcast camera catches Derek Watt for this whole play.

The Bengals fail to get any push on Watt’s side and he easily moves his player to the side, then fights him off to get downfield in front of his blocker. The returner sees the gunners are blocked but not Watt barreling toward him and we get this nice highlight. Nice tackling form by Watt, but while this is definitely a flashier play, it isn’t nearly as impressive as the one above. But that’s the nature of special teams, you rarely get a flashy outcome connected to the work you do.

Steelers vs. Chargers, 4th quarter, 12:40

Derek Watt (#44) is the second player from the right side of the screen.

Derek Watt doesn’t get the block here, but look at what he does. When Robert Spillane cuts across the center, his man looks to block Watt, but Derek Watt has already driven his blocker into the backfield. Because of that, Ulysees Gilbert III is coming unblocked, and the protector picks him up. Now look at Miles Killebrew (#28, just to the left of the center). The first blocker to touch Killebrew has seen the stunt coming and passes Killebrew off to the protector, who isn’t there to help.

Sure there are mistakes here from the Chargers, but the speed in which Derek Watt drives his man 5 yards backwards is a big part of the chaos that leads to this punt block. This is Watt’s primary role on punt returns, he takes his man and drives him straight back toward the punt protector, which makes life harder for that player. The Steelers also blocked a punt, scoring a touchdown in Week 1 against the Bills. On that play the punt blockers double-teamed Derek Watt as Killebrew ran untouched to block the punt. There were only 12 blocked punts in the NFL in 2021, the Steelers had two of them.

The Point:

Derek Watt brings solid athleticism, power and great awareness to every special teams snap he plays. He may not make many flashy plays, but his consistently high level of play is a great asset to the Steelers special teams.