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Steelers Film Room: The downside of T.J. Watt’s aggressive play style

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While his play has been mostly excellent in his 2017 rookie campaign, Steelers outside linebacker T.J.Watt has also had his share of mistakes. One of them was a near-miss on the Packers’ first drive that might have changed the early complexion of the game had he played it better.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt’s aggressive play style has been a breath of fresh air for the team and fans alike in 2017. After several years of the Jarvis Jones experiment — about which it could fairly and accurately be said that the biggest problem was a complete lack of aggression — the Steelers selected Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He was a sensation from the start.

Earlier this week, I highlighted a crucial sack by Watt in the closing minutes against the Green Bay Packers that helped secure the Steelers their opportunity to win the game, which they did, with a 53-yard field as time expired. It’s only fair, though, to point out the plays Watt has missed, as well.

More often than not, that same aggression and quick read-and-diagnose prowess he demonstrates on key plays is the cause of many of his failures. Much like a one-cut running back, Watt often assumes his first read is accurate and pursues it with fervor. On play fakes and cutbacks, however, this has bitten him more than once. It did exactly that on the Packers’ third offensive play of the night, at a moment when Watt had a golden opportunity to force young quarterback Brett Hundley to dig out of a 2nd-and-long hole.

The Setup

The Steelers line up with their base 3-4 personnel, but with the entire group shifted into a faux 4-3 look they’ve used regularly this season. The defensive line is shifted to the offensive right, with Watt on the line on the offensive left in a two-point stance. This effectively gives the Steelers a four-man line, while outside linebacker Bud Dupree has moved back and inside the hash marks, alongside inside linebackers Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier. The secondary is playing quarters, but Coty Sensabaugh is lined up at the line of scrimmage since there are no wide receivers to his side on the offensive right. There are, however, two tight ends in his vicinity.

The Play

This was an excellent call by the Packers for two reasons. First, Hundley is a mobile, athletic quarterback. For an inexperienced quarterback, bootlegs are a good way to get them into space with good sight lines. Second, the play was set up perfectly two downs earlier, on the Packers’ first offensive play. On first down, Green Bay ran to the right, with tight end Lance Kendricks trap-blocking towards Watt:

Packers use trap block on first scrimmage play to set up play action two plays later

The block ended up effectively taking Watt, who has excelled at backside pursuit this season. His aggressive nature has allowed him to run down backs from behind for a loss on more than one occasion.

Two plays later, again on first down, Green Bay gives a similar look, but from a different formation (single-back instead of shotgun). Kendricks initially appears to be making the same trap block, which draws Watt in quickly. Watt is clearly trying to close the distance between himself and Kendricks quickly to prevent Kendricks from getting a good angle for the block. Watt’s side-step of Kendricks confirms this.

Unfortunately for Watt, it was a play-fake rather than a handoff. He recognizes it quickly, but is moving too quickly toward the back and has turned his hips, while Hundley is quickly retreating in the other direction. Watt’s athleticism is on full display at this point, as he makes the turn and begins to close on Hundley, but that initial misread of the play was too much to overcome. Rather than squaring to Hundley and getting a sack, forcing second down and as much as 20 yards to go, Hundley completes the pass and the Packers would face 2nd and 5. The Steelers would get a sack two plays later, but it would be nullified by an illegal-hands-to-the-face flag on Artie Burns.

Given that the situation on that play — 3rd and 5 — might have been very different had Watt gotten the sack on first down, it’s safe to assume the entire complexion of the drive might have been entirely different, too. We’ll never know. The Packers would go on to score and, given that the Steelers had missed their first extra point on the previous drive, Green Bay would end up taking a one-point lead. Pittsburgh ended up playing from behind most of the night, despite ultimately winning.

Rookies make mistakes — even the ones drafted in the first round. So far, Watt’s good plays have vastly outnumbered the bad, but he will still need to clean up some of these bad habits to excel over the long term.