When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, his “football IQ” and quick play recognition were cited as reasons for drafting him, despite only starting at the position for a single season at the University of Wisconsin. Throughout the course of the 2017 season, those traits have often been on display, but perhaps never more so than late in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.
With the Packers coming out in an empty set, with four wide receivers and a tight end, the Steelers go to a Cover-3 defense, with a small wrinkle of showing a Cover-4 look before the snap. Cornerbacks Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh are playing the deep outside zones, while it initially appears safeties Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell are playing the inside deep zones.
The Steelers have another wrinkle inside the box, with the linebackers all rotated to the offensive right and inside linebacker Vince Williams lined up immediately to outside linebacker Bud Dupree’s outside shoulder. Watt and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier are lined up behind defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
At the snap, Watt drops into a shallow middle (“hole”) zone. Davis initially shows deep zone coverage, but then comes up to cover the curl zone on the offensive left. Shazier mirrors him to the offensive right. Williams and cornerback Mike Hilton take the flat zones.
Tight end Richard Rogers initially appears to be running a seam route, which Watt covers off the snap. Rogers then bends into an out route, though, into Davis’ zone. Watt releases and sees two things: 1) no one is coming into his zone, and 2) quarterback Brett Hundley has turned his attention to the right side of the field.
At this point, Watt is almost 15 yards — 45 feet — away from Hundley, but a lane has opened on the left side of the line. Tuitt is now behind Hundley, but Heyward is showing some pressure off the right side.
This is the moment Hundley decides to make a break for it through that hole between the center and the left guard. This is also the moment it goes very wrong for Hundley.
At the instant Hundley pulls the ball down to escape the pocket, Watt has already started rushing toward the gap and has closed a third of the distance. With a full head of steam, he is less than a second from impact, and Hundley hasn’t even realized it is coming yet. By the time the quarterback emerges from the left side of the center, Watt is in the hole, and all Hundley can do is brace himself for the hit.
Okay, yes, I admit Watt probably should have been flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit. That would have given the Packers much better field position, and may have even been enough to change the complexion of the game. But it didn’t happen, and that one instant shouldn’t diminish the outstanding play Watt made.
While the impact of this play isn’t even in the same time zone as that of James Harrison’s pick-six in Super Bowl XLIII, there’s a clear parallel in the freelance decision-making that took place. For Harrison, it was an inversion of this play: he was supposed to rush Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, but recognized the play and dropped into a shallow zone coverage that allowed him to snag the interception that ultimately went down as one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.
In Watt’s case, it was a decision to break coverage in order to rush the quarterback that may have secured the Steelers a chance to win a game which they, at times, tried their best to lose on the defensive side of the ball.
It doesn’t acquit the defense of the gaffes that saw the Packers score touchdowns of 39, 54 and 55 yards. But it certainly atoned for them, and was one of the key moments of the Steelers’ prime-time victory.