When I predicted that T.J. Watt would be the Steelers’ 2019 MVP last June, I did so because I saw his trajectory vaulting him to be the team’s best player. But I didn’t see him reaching the level that could earn national honors for the best defensive player in the NFL.
Not when the likes of Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack were each coming off insanely good seasons with little signs that they would slow down.
But Watt passed those guys as far as performance in 2019 and being a game-changer. He also was joined by other worthy candidates that had more sacks, but weren’t more deserving of the NFL’s defensive player of the year award.
Here’s the case for Watt:
Watt’s main competition splits between a small group of players. The Patriots’ cornerback Stephon Gilmore was the NFL’s best cornerback of 2019, recording six interceptions and never giving up a touchdown. Shaquil Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks while Chandler Jones was right behind him with 19.
But what sets Watt apart was how pivotal he was for the Steelers’ defense. Neither Barrett’s Buccaneers nor Jones’ Cardinals were good defenses this season as the former ranked 29th in points allowed and the latter ranked 28th. They were overachievers on bad defenses that shone brightly on a roster lacking a balanced defense.
Even with that, Watt’s overall production makes the argument to negate their advantage in sack production. Watt’s eight passes defensed, two interceptions, eight fumbles forced and four recovered are all the most among the NFL’s two leading sack men.
When totaling the amount of impact plays, that being tackles, interceptions, passes defensed, fumbles forced or recovered, tackles for loss, sacks and quarterback hits, Watt is right with them. He has 141.5 impact plays compared to Jones’ 125 and Barrett’s 142.5.
But Watt had several moments during the Steelers’ season that kept his team alive in the playoff hunt. As their defense rose to give up the sixth fewest points in the NFL, while leading the league in forced turnovers and sacks, Watt played a pivotal role almost every week.
Any time an offense didn’t key on stopping Watt, he found a way to disrupt a play. Here’s an example when the Bengals tried to use tight end C.J. Uzomah alone and it didn’t work. Watt used his inside hand to anchor his path to Andy Dalton and end the play:
Barrett led the NFL in quarterback hits with 37 along with the Packers’ edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, but Watt was right behind both with 36.
But even when Watt wasn’t the player hitting the quarterback, he was forcing quarterbacks to leave their launch points and creating opportunities for others. Watch how his rush forced Sam Darnold to leave his pocket and run right into a waiting Vince Williams. Darnold forced a bad pass that was almost intercepted by Cameron Sutton over the middle:
But what sets Watt apart from everyone else in this race has been his knack for finding the football and causing turnovers. The Steelers led the NFL with 38 turnovers and Watt accounted for eight forced fumbles, four recovered and two interceptions.
He was on a serious tear by midseason to get the football for his team once it was obvious the Steelers’ offense was never going to be good. Watch the layers that went into his strip sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick. He sets up tackle Jesse Davis with a great burst off the line to force him to honor his outside shoulder. He then uses a quick swim move to cross his face to the inside gap for a clear shot at Fitzpatrick.
But even after all that, Watt goes right for the football, pulling it out and recovering it himself:
Watt may not have the most sacks, but he was the biggest factor on the sixth best defense of 2019. That should give him a leg up on Barrett and Jones as neither were a key cog on a defense that drew national attention throughout the season.
But that brings up Gilmore as a legitimate contender, as the Patriots were the NFL’s top defense allowing only 225 points and he didn’t contribute to a single one. But Gilmore looked rough in the Patriots’ regular season finale where they lost to the Dolphins at home and blew their shot at a bye week in the playoffs.
And with the Patriots’ loss to the Titans on wild card weekend, all the top candidates for defensive player of the year are out of contention with finished resumes on the season.
But what could put Watt over the top for AP voters might be how consistent he was in production all season. After the week one loss to the Patriots, Watt either registered sack, a forced fumble or an interception in each of the fifteen games for the rest of the season.
Dale Lolley couldn’t have been more right when he wrote that Watt’s price was about to skyrocket. He was the leagues’ biggest defensive game changer all season and was often the biggest factor that led to their wins or kept them close enough to compete in their losses.
Take a step back and look at that, and he has the best case for NFL defensive player of the year.