What would the Pittsburgh Steelers’ record be in the 2023 season if it weren’t for star edge rusher T.J. Watt? Fans are undoubtedly glad they haven’t had to come up with an answer to that thus far — knock on wood.
Though Watt is most known for his pass rush (deservedly so), his impact is felt in every facet of the Steelers’ game on defense. The pressure he delivers is enough to not just wreck the hopes of opposing quarterbacks, but also help other defenders like linebacker Alex Highsmith achieve pressure of their own.
When Watt is on the field, his presence is felt everywhere, from deep in the trenches to the greatest depths of the secondary. He’s the Pittsburgh Steelers’ ultimate power player in every sense of the phrase, providing the electricity on defense; he is Renegade, personified.
T.J. Watt: The Man, the myth, the legend
Considering his impact on the Steelers’ franchise since Day 1, it bears reminding that Watt doesn’t have the same draft status as the other “premiere pass rushers” in the league. In fact, Watt was the 30th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft — the fourth linebacker off of the board that season and an absolute gift to the Steelers that lay in waiting.
Sure, he was still a first-round pick — but boy, was he a value, especially considering his immediate contributions, notching 7.0 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble, and 10 tackles for loss over 15 games in his rookie season. It wasn’t long before he took the entire league by storm, kicking off a three-year streak of earning first-team All-Pro honors in his third NFL season.
Dating back to 2017, Watt leads the NFL in sacks (86.0), quarterback hits (178) and forced fumbles (25) while ranking second in tackles for loss (95) only behind LA Rams (and Pitt Panthers) legend Aaron Donald. On top of that, he’s the only player since 2017 with more than 20 sacks to also have recorded more than five interceptions, with 86.0 and 7 in each category, respectively.
As impressive as Watt’s production is on the field is the trickle-down effect his presence has on the rest of the defense, whether it be for others in the trenches on defense, either on the defensive line or playing linebacker, or those in the secondary.
One of the most tangible effects Watt has had is for teammate Alex Highsmith, a former third-round pick out of the 2020 NFL Draft class who received an extension to become the eighth-highest-paid outside linebacker in the league this offseason.
Highsmith saw opportunity present itself in a whole new way in the 2022 season as Watt missed time with a pec injury. As it turns out, however, it was the time he shared with Watt on the field that was the most special. In the games that the duo played together in 2022, Highsmith wasn’t just good; he was unstoppable. Over those 10 games, Highsmith totaled 44 quarterback pressures, 11 of which were converted to sacks, leading the entire NFL with a 17% pressure rate, per Next Gen Stats.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better edge-rushing duo with as broad a skillset as Watt and Highsmith, and part of their effectiveness comes from the sheer threat the other creates while on the field. Iron sharpens iron. After all, there are just two total players in the NFL with 20+ sacks, 25+ tackles for loss, 7+ forced fumbles and 1+ interceptions over the last two seasons: Their names are T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.
Highsmith isn’t the only “iron” that Watt sharpens with his presence on the field, either. Part of Watt’s impact on defense comes in the secondary, whether that comes by way of generating pressure and forcing mistakes or by tipping balls at the line, having totaled a whopping 22 batted passes (second) since he was drafted. How about forcing fumbles? He’s good at that, too, leading the league with 25 since 2017. Not all plays are created equal, but what they do is generate opportunity for other members of the defense to make plays of their own.
Every sack? That’s yardage. Every bad decision made by a quarterback looking Watt in the eye as he’s in the hunt? That’s a potential turnover. Every tipped ball? That’s a chance for a pick. Every forced fumble? That’s a ball that could be recovered for the game-winning score. That, my friends, is precisely what makes Watt a power player in every sense of the phrase.
A power player on and off the field
In addition to his work on the field, Watt has found several ways to contribute to the community of Pittsburgh with his various charitable efforts throughout the city. Watt has spent his free time as a visitor to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, spending time with patients and their families at the city’s leading pediatric facility. Watt has also partnered to support 412 Food Rescue throughout his career, an organization that aims to redirect potential waste and surplus food throughout the region to organizations in the community working to relieve food insecurity.
Watt has another opportunity to make an impact off the field this season, as former NFL punter-turned-media personality Pat McAfee has offered to donate $500k to a charity of Watt’s choice if he broke the NFL’s single-season sack record in 2023, currently set at 22.5. Giants defender Michael Strahan held the record by his lonesome since 2001 until Watt tied it with 22.5 sacks in his 2021 season, winning Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts.
Whether Watt passes that mark in 2023 remains to be seen. But his impact will be felt on the field regardless.