The Pittsburgh Steelers don't have a lot of things going for them right now, but T.J. Watt is one of them. The former Defensive Player of the Year has impacted football games early in the 2023 season with pivotal sacks, a defensive touchdown, and a key interception. But despite what he continues to offer, opposing teams are finding ways to slow him down.
This only minimizes Watt's impact; it doesn't take him completely out of the game. However, the opposition has discovered that this might be all they need to do in order to secure a win against the Steelers. Their plan seems to be working.
In the first three games of the season, Watt feasted on offenses -- earning 6.0 sacks and 6 QB hits, per Pro Football Reference. Since then he has been much quieter (at least as a pass rusher). Over his past four contests, Watt has scraped together just 2.5 sacks and 1 QB hit.
What's the reason for this change? When you go back and watch the film, the answer is pretty simple: teams know where T.J. Watt is going to be on every pass-rush snap, and they are accounting for him.
Teams have figured out how to defend T.J. Watt
This was first very noticeable during Pittsburgh's road game against the Houston Texans back in Week 4. Head coach DeMeco Ryans had a plan to neutralize the Steelers' best player. The plan was to make sure that the Texans offered an extra blocker on nearly every pass rush rep.
This doesn't mean that Watt faced nothing but true double-teams. While he started getting doubled more frequently, the Texans would often send a tight end or running back to chip on Watt -- slowing him and disrupting his rush. This made is so Watt couldn't get to the quarterback as quickly.
This game plan didn't die in Houston. Since then, the Ravens, Rams, and Jaguars each implemented similar strategies to slow down Pittsburgh's best player. They were persistent in taking Watt out of the game and forcing other players to beat them. Outside of Alex Highsmith, nobody on the Steelers' defensive line has shown the ability to win consistently.
Steelers must counter to help Watt and the team
Though Pittsburgh's defense has hardly been their biggest problem, we don't want to see Watt uninvolved in the action. The reason why it's so easy for teams to game plan against the All-Pro pass rusher is because they know where he is lining up on each and every pass rush snap. This means that, when they come out of the huddle, they can already have the personnel in place to account for him and aid the right tackle.
Watt has expressed that he is very comfortable rushing from the left side of the formation and that he's really not interested in moving. However, he might be more open to the idea now that teams have sent extra attention his way. Regardless, this is the coach's decision to make.
Some of the other top pass rushers around the NFL are ambidextrous as they can rush from either side of the line (and sometimes up the middle of the defensive line). Defensive coordinators Dan Quinn of the Cowboys and Jim Schwartz of the Browns have been doing this frequently with players like Micah Parsons and Myles Garrett, respectively. Nick Bosa also rushes from both sides.
By switching up Watt's alignment, opposing offenses will not be able to account for him so easily. This is going to create more one-on-one opportunities for the former DPOY and should undoubtedly improve his pass-rush win rate.
This would be an adjustment for both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, as both players -- who are very comfortable in their roles -- would be asked to move flip sides from time to time. However, the results could pay dividends for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It has gotten too easy for opposing teams to account for where Watt will be and how to ensure that he is well-blocked. It's time to counter with a little creativity on defense.