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Steelers Film Room: Pass rush is just “Watt” the doctor ordered

The Pittsburgh Steelers were banking on T.J. Watt to be a difference maker in the defense, and so far so good for the rookie OLB.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Even without Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt for all but two snaps, the Steelers were able to sack the Cleveland Browns DeShone Kizer seven times in the season opener. What was more eye-opening than the box score numbers was the consistent display of pressure generated by the front-seven.

You may say “Oh it was the Browns.” Well, the Browns made a ton of additions to their offensive line during the off-season, including a top guard in Kevin Zeitler and center J.C. Tretter, who proved to be an effective center for the Packers when Corey Linsley missed time.

Those additions didn't seem to matter, though, as the Steelers found ways to dominate in the trenches and certain players really stood out.

It all started on the first play.

Stephon Tuitt

Stephon Tuitt is lined up as a 7 technique

For a 300-plus-pound defensive linemen, Tuitt gets a nice jump off of the snap, he gives a subtle hesitation, then uses a quick swim inside, coming extremely close to sacking Kizer. Pittsburgh had nice coverage on the play. Combine that with the pursuit of Hargrave and Chickillo’s contain (technically he wasn’t playing containment), Kizer wasn’t going anywhere on that play.

Then came Tuitt’s last snap of the game when he definitely went out with a bang:

This looks like a stretch run to me; what do you think? The extra tackle rookie TE David Njoku is tasked with blocking Tuitt, which is just childs play for him. Tuitt easily the sheds the block, fills the gap and re-routes Crowell out of bounds.

Just goes to show how good Stephon Tuitt is and what he brings to this defense. Thank goodness he received good news on the injury front.

Even without Tuitt, the Browns had no luck on the ground, averaging a paltry 2.3 yards per rush.

As for the rest of his teammates:

Javon Hargrave

Javon “J-Wobble” Hargrave has gotten off to a quick start in his sophomore campaign, and it started with terrorizing the Browns’ new center, J.C. Tretter. Hargrave’s pass rush presence was on full display.

Hargrave was known for his deadly swim move coming out college and it was evident here against Tretter. Even though he wasn’t able to get the sack, he flushed him out of the pocket and forced him to tuck it. Unfortunately, Shazier ended up hitting Kizer as he was sliding, so it was penalized.

Hargrave wasn’t done with Tretter yet, though:

I bet there’s nothing more satisfying as pass rusher than just straight bull-rushing an offensive linemen back into the QB. That’s exactly what J-Wobble did as he used his natural leverage (height) and power to walk Tretter right back into Kizer and sack him.

Hargrave is extremely unique for a nose tackle because, not only can he generate a serious pass rush from the interior with his quickness, but he’s truly unique is his ability to flow laterally on run plays, while also being able to anchor through double-teams.

The Steelers are gifted with having a line built for the modern NFL, with their ability to rush the passer while also being able to stop the run. The Browns could do very little when it came to running the ball, and a lot of this had to do with the Steelers’ defensive line.

Having a marquee edge-rusher is crucial for a top pass-rush. Getting pressure with four is something the Steelers have been hoping to accomplish. In a game without Dupree, the Steelers might have found that marquee guy.

T.J. Watt

Watt spent most of his time going up against future HOF left tackle, Joe Thomas. This would be quite a great test for the young rookie and he passed it with flying colors:

Remember how we we’re pointing out in the preseason how Watt was a bit late turning the corner? Look where his feet are pointed here and that ridiculous body position. That’s called, “dip and bend through contact.” Yes, he lost his footing at the end and he possibly could’ve avoided that if he had landed a better chop, but it’s unbelievable how low he is with the way he’s angled.

A little bit later in the game, Watt was able to correct his mistake. He corrected it twice actually:

See how he was able to free up the hands more with that chop? Look how close he came to getting a hand on that ball. I remember watching this live wondering if this was about to be a strip sack. I love seeing this because this is what the Steelers have been lacking on the edge, a young dynamic edge-rusher with the ability to bend around tight corners.

Then, on the second play, you see the same thing but you also notice his hustle and effort.

Speaking of learning from in-game mistakes:

Look at that last play when he got flat-out pancaked by Joe Thomas. Note his pad level and how much lower Thomas is. And look where Watt’s hands are—not in the chest of Thomas. Instead, Thomas has his hands in Watt’s and from there it was game over:

Now look at this next play. Yes, his pad level is higher than Thomas and as Thomas tries to squat down, Watt uses that leverage to execute the bull-jerk move (aka the push-pull move) by violently yanking down on the tackle. Remember, this was his go-to move in college and executing it against a top offensive tackle like Joe Thomas shows that he can carry it over from college to the NFL.

As mentioned in regard to those last few plays, Watt makes mistakes, but he makes quick adjustments during the game. That’s a player who knows what he’s doing right and what he’s doing wrong. Often times, as a rookie, your head is spinning because you’re focusing on your assignment, but that tendency never showed up against the Browns.

Watt’s executing his assignments and this couldn’t have been more clear than on this next play:

This pick resulted from a bad trajectory on the throw by Kizer, great depth in Watt’s coverage drop and Watt’s athleticism in climbing the ladder. Watt isn’t just a pass rusher, he’s dangerous in underneath coverage because he possesses those gifts that allow him to get his hands on the ball.

Conclusion

Overall, the front-seven really showed up in this game. Regarding Stephon Tuitt, it cannot be stressed enough how big it is that his injury proved not to be season-ending. Javon Hargrave is proving to be too much for interior offensive linemen to handle due to his speed, power and ability to anchor against the run.

T.J. Watt proved to be exactly what the defense needed to execute a 4-man rush on a more consistent basis. His bend, savviness, athleticism and hand technique force offensive tackles to respect his outside rush, which could also open the door for inside counter moves as he learns to develop them throughout this season.

Health will be a big key for this unit going forward and I’m looking forward to seeing what Bud Dupree could add to this group.

P.S. Chickillo and Heyward each had solid games as well, although they’re not included in this article.