When T.J. Watt arrived in Pittsburgh in 2017, the Steelers started him out as a right outside linebacker. He competed with former Steelers legend James Harrison for the starting job and won it outright as a rookie. Watt went on to start 15 games for the Steelers on the right side and finished with the Steelers’ rookie record of seven sacks.
After the season, Watt switched to the left outside linebacker position which according to himself, it was on his request due to the left side feeling more natural.
“When I came here it was like, ‘I’ll play right side coach,’ I hate playing right side,” Watt said. “But if it’s for the team, let’s do it and that’s why after my first year I was like, ‘Can I please go to the left?’”
After switching to the left side, Watt became a different type of player. He was named to five straight Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pro nominations, and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Watt explained that on the left side, he has more weapons in his arsenal to attack the quarterback with and explained the difference in the two positions as he compared it to how people write.
“It just doesn’t feel right. It feels like I’m writing with my left hand,” Watt said. “The bend isn’t the same. I just have so much muscle memory on the left side and it feels so natural. It just comes to me. When I’m on the right, it’s like I’m working against my body.”
Just two years removed from tying the NFL single-season sack total, Watt is still in his prime and if he can stay healthy in a 17-game season, he still has the potential to possibly break that record outright. Watt explained that he is feeling good this offseason but he is still upset at how his last season went because he knows he could have prevented the injury that sidelined him for seven games.
“Just having a great offseason, feeling really good going into the season,” Watt said. “I felt like I was playing really well in Cincinnati. But that’s just like one of those things. Even on the play I got hurt, the clock was running, they were out of timeouts. Fourth quarter. It was like 20 seconds left. I got a hand-in-the-face penalty. But I had Joe Burrow locked up, and like my arm got stuck behind me. And that’s how I tore my pec. The amount of times I’ve replayed that play in my mind — like if I just kept my hands low, there’s no hands to the face, A. Then, B, if I just stay on my feet and wrap him up and take him down, like, game’s over, pec is fine. The amount of times that I’ve drove myself nuts thinking like that.”
Nonetheless, Watt is still on track to have a Hall of Fame career and now that the Steelers have locked up his running mate, Alex Highsmith who had 14.5 sacks last season, the two will continue to wreak havoc on opposing teams’ offenses in 2023.
90 • T.J. Watt, Outside Linebacker, Wisconsin
6-foot-4, 252 pounds, 28 years old, 7th Season
Acquired: The Steelers drafted Watt with the 30th overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Last season: Watt and the Steelers opened the 2022 season with an overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals but unfortunately for Watt, he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the win and missed the next seven contests. In that Week 1 game, Watt tallied six tackles, one sack, and one interception.
Watt returned to the Steelers’ defense in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints and totaled four tackles. Watt finished the season with 10 starts. He recorded 39 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 31 quarterback pressures, one forced fumble and two interceptions.
Career: After being the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2017, Watt won the starting job over James Harrison to enter the season. He became the first Steelers’ rookie to start at outside linebacker in Week 1 since 1988. In his NFL debut in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns, Watt tallied two sacks and an interception. The next week, Watt suffered a groin injury that kept him out of the team’s Week 3 matchup. Watt broke the Steelers’ rookie sack record as he finished with seven in his first season. In total, Watt recorded 54 total tackles, seven sacks, one interception, and one forced fumble.
Watt took a step forward in his second season in Pittsburgh as he started all 16 games and nearly doubled his sack total. He racked up a career-high 68 total tackles while adding 13 sacks, and six forced fumbles.
In 2019, Watt started all 16 games once again and kept up his high-level play for the defense. He finished the year with 55 total tackles, 14.5 sacks, two interceptions, eight forced fumbles, and a career-high 81 quarterback pressures. The following season, Watt had a very similar season production-wise. He finished the 2020 season with 53 tackles, 15 sacks, 73 quarterback pressures, one interception, and two forced fumbles. Pro Football Focus gave Watt the highest rating of his career in 2020 as he was given a 91.6 defensive rating.
Watt rewrote the record books in 2021 as he started 15 games and tied the NFL record for most sacks in a single season. Watt finished the year with 64 total tackles, 62 pressures, five forced fumbles, and a career-high 22.5 sacks. He tied the record despite missing two full games and portions of four others. Following the season, Watt was named as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year which was the first time a Steelers’ defender has won the award since Troy Polamalu won it in 2010.
Over his first six seasons, Watt has started all 87 games that he has appeared in with the Steelers. He has totaled 77.5 sacks, 162 quarterback hits, 88 tackles for loss, six interceptions, and 23 forced fumbles. He is a five-time Pro Bowler and a three-time first-team All-Pro member.
College: Watt committed to the University of Wisconsin as a tight end prospect and sat out the 2013 season as a redshirt. In 2014, Watt suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the entire 2014 season and the 2015 spring practices.
In the fall of 2015, Watt switched from tight end to outside linebacker. Watt made his first collegiate appearance in 2015 for the Badgers as he played in 13 games as a redshirt sophomore. He finished the season with eight combined tackles, three passes defended, and 1.5 tackles for loss.
Watt really exploded onto the scene in 2016 as he started all 14 games for the Badgers as an outside linebacker. He totaled 63 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, one interception, and two forced fumbles. His lone collegiate interception was returned for a 17-yard pick-six. The 11.5 sacks that Watt racked up in 2016 ranked as the fifth-highest total in a single season at Wisconsin.
In total, Watt appeared in 27 contests and recorded 14 starts in his Badgers’ career. He tallied 71 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, one interception, and two forced fumbles.
Salary cap and future: Watt signed a four-year extension with the Steelers in 2021 and is signed with the team through the end of the 2025 season. This season, Watt will cost $29.36 million against the Steelers’ cap space with $20 million being base salary and $9.36 million being bonus money.
Watt will become an unrestricted free agent following the 2025 season when he will be the age of 31 years old.
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