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How much did T.J. Watt’s injury affect him in 2022?

Despite the team’s success with him in the lineup, T.J. Watt was not the same player Steelers’ fans were used to.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 league year is well underway. With the 2023 NFL draft now behind us, there are still questions to be answered going forward. After the fear of being lost for the season, T.J. Watt led the Steelers to an impressive second-half record and almost to a postseason berth. But how much did Watt’s injury affect him in 2022? 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:

Playing in 10 games during the 2022 season, T.J. Watt saw his production drop off much more than what would be expected from missing seven games. Despite playing only 2/3 of the games that he did the previous year, Watt saw only a quarter of the sacks (5.5) than what he did in 2021 (22.5) when he tied the NFL record for a single season. It was Watt’s lowest sack total of his career and his second-lowest sacks per game average (0.55) only ahead of his rookie season (0.47).

Although sacks are not the only statistics that matter, they are the driving force when it comes to a player such as T.J. Watt. And while his production obviously was not the same over the final nine games of the season as what fans saw in previous years, his effect on the Steelers on-the-field results was undeniable. The Steelers had a 1–6 record when T.J. Watt was not in the lineup and 8–2 when he was on the field.

When it comes to sacks, the Steelers only had eight sacks over the seven games Watt missed while they had 32 sacks in the remaining 10 games. Additionally, the Steelers did not go a game without notching at least one sack while T.J. was in the lineup yet there were three games in which the Steelers did not register a sack while Watt was on IR.

So even though the Steelers defense was much improved with T.J. Watt on the field in 2022 compared to when he was out, was there an explanation for his personal drop in production? Geoffrey is ready to answer that question.

The Film Line:

When T.J. Watt returned from his pectoral injury following the bye week, he brought a much higher level of play to the outside linebacker position than any of the players that filled in for him could.

Steelers vs. Saints, 1st quarter, 13:04

T.J. Watt (#90) is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

You can see Watt’s quickness off the snap and his lower body power to hold his position. On his first play back from injury, Watt blows up a run play.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 3rd quarter, 12:44

T.J. Watt (#90) is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

Watt gets involved in the sack here, but look at his move to beat the tackle. Notice how little his left arm does. It’s his right arm doing the majority of the work here. Compare this to a sack from 2021, where he uses a move that disappeared almost entirely from his arsenal in 2022.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 2021, 4th quarter, 1:21

T.J. Watt (#90) is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

On this sack, Watt uses his left arm to throw the blocker past him, and then to push off and get back into the play. If you look at the first clip again, you can see the difference in how hard he pushes with his left arm after getting clear of the blocker.

Watt’s limitations really showed up in Week 13, when his arm seemed to be bothering him more.

Steelers vs. Falcons, 1st quarter, 7:28

T.J. Watt (#90) is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

Here’s a very rare look at T.J. Watt being used to contain the quarterback in the pocket while Alex Highsmith is rushing aggressively from the right side. This is not something you would see the previous three seasons as it was always Watt rushing aggressively and the other edge defender containing.

Steelers vs. Falcons, 2nd quarter, 13:27

T.J. Watt (#90) is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

T.J. Watt actively avoids using his left arm on this play. You can see him pull the arm back when engaging the blocker, and his tackle attempt is one-armed. That’s not going to be effective very often.

Steelers vs. Saints, 3rd quarter, 3:35

T.J. Watt (#90) is the edge rusher to the right side of the screen.

On this play Watt needs to crash inside to help defend the run, but as soon as he tries, the blocker gets his left side and Watt is easily driven out of the play. You can see why too, his left arm swipe to get the blocker’s hand off him is not very effective. Watt can’t put up a fight once the blocker has his left side so he just tucks his arm in and concedes the play.

T.J. Watt just didn’t have the ability to fight like he usually can with that left arm, and frequently was forced to concede fights that were focused on his left side.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 10:50

T.J. Watt (#90) is the edge rusher to the right side of the screen.

The Ravens don’t block T.J. Watt and his quickness flashes as he beats the pulling blocker, but watch his left arm as he tries to make the tackle. Watt isn’t trying to wrap up the runner but just hold on, and he can’t. Mark Robinson finishes the play to keep T.J. Watt from getting a missed tackle here, but you can see T.J. Watt wasn’t himself even at the end of the season.

Steelers @Ravens, 3rd quarter, 2:14

T.J. Watt (#90) is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

When it is just Watt’s speed, lower body and right arm needed to make plays, he still looked like the T.J. Watt who won the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year.

The Point:

It’s clear from the stats that T.J. Watt was not the same player after returning in 2022 despite the difference in the win-loss column, and the film shows it was likely due to his left arm. The Steelers need T.J. Watt to get that strength back in his left arm, and to be ready to fully trust it in 2023 if he’s going to be the T.J. Watt Steelers fans are used to.