A lot has changed over the past several years for T.J. Watt. Following his rookie season with the Steelers, Watt recalls not being noticed when walking through Pittsburgh with his older brother J.J. Watt.
J.J. was recognized by seemingly everyone, while the Steelers' young pass-rusher walked in anonymity.
"We're walking, and I see my jersey hanging on a [restaurant] wall," T.J. said during a recent conversation with Bryant McFadden on the "All Things Covered" podcast. "My brother is getting noticed like crazy and nobody is saying anything to me. He's like, 'I can't believe that nobody here in Pittsburgh recognizes you. It's so wild to me.' I was like, 'I haven't made my mark yet.' It was after my rookie year. Stuff like that has definitely changed."
T.J. acknowledged that this is no longer the case in Pittsburgh, as he has become one of the marquee faces of one of NFL's most popular franchises.
"It's so cool to see just how respectful people are of my time," Watt said of his interactions with Steelers fans. "Nobody wants anything. They just want to say hello. … I have nothing but good things to say about the people of Pittsburgh."
The 30th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Watt has quickly ascended as one of the NFL's premier players. A Pro Bowler each of the past four years and two-time All-Pro, Watt has recorded 67 sacks in 74 career regular-season games. In Pittsburgh's win over the Titans last Sunday, Watt broke James Harrison's 13-year-old single-season sack record.
"It's a great accomplishment, but it's a team accomplishment," Watt said of his new franchise record. "Deebo was a phenomenal pass-rusher. Just to be able to be in that conversation in such an historic franchise like the Pittsburgh Steelers, it definitely is special."
Watt, who called Harrison "a really good mentor" during their one season as teammates, described one of Harrison's moves that allowed him to be an effective pass-rusher at 39 years old.
"A lot of times, he would line up outside the tackle, and as the ball's about to be snapped, he would scoop down almost head up of the tackle," Watt recalled. "it looks like he's going to go inside of the tackle. So the tackle tries to jump-set him, and as the tackle is punching his chest, he just grabs that arm and walks around like a merry-go-round and sacks the quarterback every time.
"I remember in Kansas City, we put him in late in the game and he got the sack to basically seal the game, and that was the move. We all were like, 'He's going to do the move, watch it work.' Sure enough, one or two pass-rush reps in, he had a sack."
Watt attributes much of his success to his hands and studying film of opposing offensive linemen that he is going to face that Sunday.
"I just work so much hand combat all offseason and trying to make it that I'm not even thinking about it," said Watt, who moved from tight end to outside linebacker midway through is college career at Wisconsin. "You have so much going through your mind when you're rushing the passer, especially on the left side. You don't have time to really look at the hands of the offensive linemen, so you have to make it second nature, and the only way to do that is through muscle memory and reps."
Watt stressed the importance of teamwork when it comes to getting to the quarterback. Working in unison with your defensive line, Watt says, is critical when it comes to being a successful pass-rusher.
"Trying to use your inside pass-rusher, whether it's Tyson Alualu when he's healthy, Chris Wormley, Cam Heyward if he comes over to my side," Watt said. "Work together so it's not one guy getting doubled then maybe another guy getting doubled if it's a line-slide.
"A great pass rush is all four guys up front working together."
Watt is just five sacks away from tying Michael Strahan's single season NFL sack record that was set in 2001. Watt has 17.5 sacks despite missing two games earlier in the year. Making his success even more impressive is the fact that he is dealing with a nagging groin injury that has forced him to take inventory of his physical status.
"It always sucks not being 100% going into games," Watt said, "and just to have that in the back of your mind, you're warming up and you're not feeling 100%. … That's been the challenge for myself, to be smart with my body and to listen to my body and understand that this is a long season, and I want to be here for the stretch run that we're in right now."
Watt said he used last year's Defensive Player of the Year runner-up as motivation for this season. He has found a healthy way to push himself while not adding unnecessary pressure.
"Early on in my my career, I would look at those individual awards and would set individual statistical goals," Watt said. "The longer I've been in, the more I realize that you don't need to add any more pressure to yourself. … Be healthy and put in absolutely everything you have into preparing for games and everything will take of itself. Winning means everything, especially late in the season. We're trying to make a playoff push, and the best way I can help this team win games is by making plays, and that's what I need to continue to do to if we want to get to where we want to be."
"Every single time I've been there I've left more motivated than when I walked through the doors."@_TJWatt is no stranger to awards shows & unfortunately no stranger to snubs at this point.— Bryant McFadden (@BMac_SportsTalk) December 23, 2021
Voters do the right thing and pick the correct DPOY this year!https://t.co/z2fTKQkwN4 pic.twitter.com/Vv0icpkKWP
Speaking of extra pressure, the thought could be that Watt and his teammates are trying to make sure that Ben Roethlisberger is able to go out in a positive way if this is indeed his final season with the Steelers. Watt, however, said that there has been no talk about Roethlisberger's future inside the facility.
"It's not something that's been talked about. I don't even know if it's true, to be honest with you," Watt said of reports that Roethlisberger is likely playing his final games with the Steelers. "These are all make-or-break games, regardless of any situation. … We know how important he is to this team and has been for decades now. We just want to continue to move in the right direction here, and we feel best with him at quarterback, obviously, because he's one of the best to do it."
While this may be his final season with Roethlisberger as a teammate, Watt will continue to be coached by Mike Tomlin, who is one win away from setting the NFL record for most consecutive non-losing seasons to start a career.
"He's just so commanding," Watt said of Tomlin, who earlier this year reached 150 career victories. "When he walks in a room, everybody shuts up. His, 'Good evening.' That deep voice, just very commanding. You want to run through a wall after every meeting, just the way that he dictates to the whole meeting room the plan. 'This is how we're going to do it. These are the guys we need to attack, etc.' It's like, man, this guy really knows what he's doing. He believes in all of us no matter what the circumstance is. Just a guy that I love playing for."