Here at SB Nation, I was asked to write a column this week on what has been the biggest surprise of the NFL season, so far. I had the freedom to write about anything in the NFL realm, like how Phil Simms not being an analyst for games is the greatest things since sliced bread, but I decided to make this a Steelers focused article.
As I thought about what has surprised me so far this year for the Steelers, in my opinion it has to be T.J. Watt.
I know, he is a first round draft pick, and he has only one regular season game under his belt, but if you look at his professional body of work to date, including the preseason, he has been nothing but impressive.
Coming out of college, Watt was a player who was thought to be too rough around the edges to be a quality pass rusher in the NFL. Pundits talked about his 10.5 sacks at Wisconsin coming primarily against tight ends, and those “being in the right place at the right time” style of sacks.
Then came the combine, and Watt lit it up. His numbers were out of this world for the position he plays, yet people continued to call him a combine hero, and those flashy numbers would never translate to the NFL.
His lack of “bend” as a pass rusher, and lack of a full repertoire of pass rushing moves, was told to make him a one-trick-pony as a pass rusher, something which would never work against NFL left tackles.
I have to admit, despite several draft experts speaking of his massive potential as an NFL player, I was skeptical when the Steelers pulled the trigger on him in the first round.
Nonetheless, Watt came to the Steel City, ate some Primanti Brothers, visited Heinz Field, shook hands, kissed babies and signed autographs as if he were running for political office. But we all wondered the same thing, “Can this guy be ‘the guy’ for the Steelers?”
We, as fans, have been disappointed before. It wasn’t that long ago a certain No. 95, no not Greg Lloyd, was being tossed around like a rag doll by offensive linemen, so to say the fan base was taking a wait-and-see approach to Watt was justifiable, in my opinion. We waited, and what we saw was a player who looked like he belonged from the start. Coaches and teammates praised his intelligence, his work ethic and his overall ability to grasp the complexities of the NFL game. It sounded too good to be true, then Watt played in his first preseason game.
Despite them being some of the easier sacks of his career, he burst onto the scene. Meh, it was the preseason...wait till the real games start. However, throughout the preseason Watt showed he was improving each and every repetition. Burning past tight ends, and out muscling tackles to get to the quarterback.
Then came the regular season opener in Cleveland.
2 sacks. 1 interception. 7 tackles.
Watt was all over the place in this game, and kept James Harrison on the sideline in the process. It may have just been one game, but if I were to bet on a player to be more than ready for the next step in his NFL progression, it would be Watt. He doesn’t just look like he belongs anymore, he does belong. The tackle he beat on more than one occasion Sunday wasn’t some schmuck, but Joe Thomas. Yeah, perennial Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas.
Steelers fans everywhere thought Watt would play on early downs, and James Harrison would come in and be the pass rushing specialist. Even though it is a small sample size, if Watt continues to play this way Harrison might not be needed as much as everyone thought heading into the 2017 regular season. This isn’t a bad thing, just goes to show how Watt has been a pleasant surprise as a player since he was the Steelers draft pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
The next question clearly is, can Watt continue to this pace throughout the 2017 season?
I’ve already learned my lesson about betting against T.J. Watt.