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Steelers Believe NFL Targets T.J. Watt with ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ Strategy



Steelers OLB T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 3, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers and T.J. Watt are upset that the superstar pass rusher seems not to get any calls while rushing the passer. On Sunday, after a play where Watt executed his ghost move and was thrown into a lineman and Alex Highsmith, it seemed that Watt had had enough.

“I don’t know,” Watt said after the 24-10 loss to the Cardinals. “The NFL has something going against me so I don’t want to talk any more negativity towards that. I don’t know what I did so I’ll leave it at that.”

Watt turned his ankle on the play, leading to his frustrations. But he is far from the only person in the Steelers building to see what he sees. Alex Highsmith agreed on Monday that Watt gets held every single play. That naturally happens sometimes, but it does feel like Watt disproportionally gets nothing called against him, Highsmith noted.

“T.J.’s held almost every play. That’s just how I feel,” Highsmith said. “He’s up there rushing like hell. He’s crazy. I can sense his frustration but he’s a guy who’s balls to the walls every single play. When he doesn’t get some of those calls he should get, it’s definitely frustrating.”

Hack-a-Shaq with Watt

The stats back this up. Since 2021, Watt has rushed the passer 1183 times but has only drawn two holding penalties, according to Sports Info Solutions. That’s nearly three full seasons. That is a daunting stat. Even with holding calls down, Watt is not getting the superstar whistle at that position. That is likely why he feels so miffed about his peers.

Steelers OLB T.J. Watt

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 26, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin referenced the infamous Hack-a-Shaq strategy when talking about the holding calls that Watt is not getting. It is a way to neutralize his dominance on the field, and no one is calling it, so naturally, they keep doing it. For Shaquille O’Neal, it was a way to neutralize his dominance in the paint and force him to the free throw line, where he notoriously struggled. It’s not the same thing as what Watt is dealing with, but the principles align here, just in a different way.

“I think T.J. runs into what all the elite rushers do. These guys are going to hold you until they can’t because a lot of times that’s the only way, they can block them,” Austin said. “I share in his frustration, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. We can complain, and we can do all that, but that really doesn’t solve the problem. I think we just deal with it. We just continue to fight and go. It’s almost like the Hack-a-Shaq. People would Hack-a-Shaq all the time, and he got fouled so much. But after a while they didn’t call it because he was so dog gone good. We’ve got to keep plugging away. When he has an opportunity to win, because he’ll still win, he does that. I wish I could, but I think, as Mike (Tomlin) likes to call it, it would be sport …, and we’re not going to …about our circumstances. We’re just going to play and fight through it, and T.J. will fight through it because he’s a good pro and a great player.”

It’s hard to quantify what to do in this circumstance, but Austin is right. There is little that Watt can do. Naturally, he has to fight through it. His skill set, relying highly on speed rushes like his ghost move and dip-and-rip, also put him in compromising spots that can borderline legal and illegal. Holding calls are not called that much in the NFL, but Watt has a disproportionately low rate, even by those standards.

Watt continues to earn high marks along with Alex Highsmith. They are a fearsome duo that most offenses can not contain without max protecting, and even then, somehow, Watt gets through the line anyway. He wrecked the game when allowed once again. But it seems that even he has reached a breaking point with the lack of calls in his favor, and he wants to know what he can do about it.