The Pittsburgh Steelers lost at home to the Cincinnati Bengals last night, dropping them to 3-7 on the season. The defense and offense once again failed to play a full game as the offense didn’t come out of the locker room at half time after playing well to start the game, failing to get into the end zone until the final moments of the game with Cincinnati nursing a two-score lead. The defense wasn’t much better as QB Joe Burrow threw for 355 yards and four TDs on the game, routinely moving the chains down the field as the defense couldn’t force the Bengals to punt the ball away.
Still, while there are evident problems on both sides of the football, one positive constant remains: the stellar play of OLB T.J. Watt. In his second game back from a pec injury that land him on IR after Week 1, Watt posted six total tackles, 1/2 sack, a QB hit, two PBUs, and an INT. The INT came on an incredible play of awareness and athleticism by Watt where he was able to leap up into the air as Joe Burrow released the football, looking to bat the ball down at the LOS, but managed to snag it and bring the ball into his torso for the INT and the takeaway deep inside Bengals territory.
Here is a forward-looking camera angle of the same play, showing the difficulty of Watt’s catch as RT La’el Collins is pushing him in the side down the LOS, but Watt still swipes the ball just inside his radius and tucks it away before hitting the ground to secure the pick.
The crazy thing is… this wasn’t Watt’s first INT of the season on a batted pass attempt at the LOS. Despite playing in only three games in 2022, Watt managed to do the exact same thing in Week 1, also against the Cincinnati Bengals and La’el Collins. On nearly an identical play as last night that was shown on the broadcast last night after the INT, Watt again leaps up into the air as Burrow throws the football, catching the ball just to the left of his body and corrals it for the interception.
If you go back to previous seasons, you notice that this isn’t a unique occurrence with Watt. T.J. Watt has a knack for timing throws at the LOS when he can’t get home with the pass rush to either bat down balls or pick them off himself. For his career, Watt has 36 pass breakups and six INTs. Not all of those have occurred at the LOS like the instances shown above, but he has made similar plays before.
Take, for instance, this INT Watt makes at the LOS against the New York Giants in 2020 season opener. Watt leaps up into the air and catches the pass attempt by QB Daniel Jones, showing his awareness of playing off Jones’ eyes paired with the athleticism and timing to make the play.
When coming out of the 2017 NFL Draft, T.J. Watt was considered a player that played with high effort and would be a solid pro but lacked overall top-end athleticism that other pass rushers have. While not an alien of a pass rusher, Watt has proved time-and-again that he is one of the most athletic pass rushers in the game despite what he Madden ratings suggest. He ran a 4.69 40-yard dash at nearly 6’5, 252lb and jumped 37 inches in the vertical and 10’8” in the broad. He routinely is one of the fastest defenders off the ball in the league and has the strength to bull rush 320lb+ OTs into the lap of the QB.
While instincts are important, there is no denying that Watt is a tremendous athlete. Take, for example, this play Watt makes against the Chiefs in the Wildcard Round last season where he redirects as QB Patrick Mahomes moves to the right out of the pocket. He gets on his horse and stays with him and manages to leap up into the air while on-the-run to deflect the pass for LB Devin Bush to leap up and make the INT.
In summary, T.J. Watt is not only a feared defender as a pass rusher who haunts opposing offensive linemen in his relentless pursuit of the QB, but also as a coverage defender who has the instincts and athleticism to leap up and bat balls down at the LOS or take the ball away himself for turnovers.
Watt was heavily critical of his performance last night, stating he needs to be better to give the team a chance to win close games. While he could have done more as a pass rusher, Watt’s INT last night shows just how good he is to impact every facet of the game when he is on the field.