T.J. Watt’s fast start triggering “Blitzburgh Steelers” resurgence
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH – T.J. Watt is not trying to match his older brother sack for sack. Honest.
It’s just sort of happening that way for the second-year Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, whose six quarterback takedowns through the first five weeks of the season have him tied with Cincinnati defensive end Carlos Dunlap and Houston Texans star J.J. Watt – the oldest of the three Watt brothers in the NFL – for the league lead.
“I can’t get caught up in any of the statistical things,” T.J. Watt said. “I’m sure my mom thinks it’s a lot cooler than I do.”
Connie Watt’s not the only one. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler is pretty impressed too, particularly with the way the 24-year-old Watt has assimilated so quickly. Then again, Butler knows Watt’s unique family dynamic played a role in his rapid adjustment to life in the NFL.
“I think he’s kind of grown up in that atmosphere,” Butler said. “He had a good idea what it took to be successful in the NFL before we got him.”
Watt racked up seven sacks as a rookie in 2017 and appears ready to take a leap forward in 2018. He opened his second season by getting three sacks in Cleveland and added three more in last week’s 41-17 dismantling of Atlanta , including a strip-sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan that teammate L.J. Fort fell on in the end zone for a touchdown.
“We just wanted to show who we really were,” Watt said. “We weren’t proud of the performances we put out in the first few showings of the season, and we just wanted to go out there and show what we’ve been working on for the past few weeks. We just want to show the consistency now.”
That has been something unattainable for the Steelers (2-2-1) through a wildly uneven opening month.
The two-time defending AFC North champions find themselves in an unusual spot heading into Sunday’s visit to Cincinnati (4-1), particularly on defense. Pittsburgh is 29th in yards allowed but also tops the NFL with 19 sacks, on pace to surpass the club record of 56 set a year ago.
Coach Mike Tomlin downplayed the idea the Steelers are blitzing more this season to overcome shaky play by a revamped secondary. Maybe, but Butler is certainly not shy about sending players from all over.
Eight Steelers already have at least one sack. Fort picked up just the third of his six-year career against the Falcons and free-agent signee Jon Bostic’s 2 1-2 are a career high. Butler isn’t trying to read too much into his team’s success creating pressure, perhaps because it has been so spotty.
The week before Pittsburgh’s pass rush harassed and harangued Ryan, it only brought down Baltimore’s Joe Flacco twice in 44 attempts as the Ravens pulled away in the second half.
“Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not,” Butler said. “Sometimes you’re good. Sometimes you’re bad.”
Butler called the key to blitzing successfully a mixture of timing and disguise. Having the right people in the right places certainly helps. Pittsburgh overwhelmed the Falcons on the same day veteran cornerback Joe Haden shut down Atlanta star wide receiver Julio Jones. The Steelers also had nickelback Mike Hilton in the mix after he sat out the Baltimore loss with a right elbow injury.
The 5-foot-9, 184-pound Hilton has carved out a niche as an unlikely enforcer off the edge thanks in part to impeccable timing. Hilton has a preternatural ability to guess the snap count – he proudly points out he’s jumped offside just once in his career – and his quickness and aggressiveness give Butler another option.
“I try to set the tone any way I can,” said Hilton, who had two quarterback hits against Atlanta. “I wouldn’t say guys look up to me, but they see how I play and they’re like, ‘He’s the smallest guy on the field and he’s playing physical and being aggressive.’ It just gives everybody the same energy.”
The key for Pittsburgh is finding a way to sustain it. Watt’s play – massively successful one week, decidedly quiet the next – is symbolic of a unit still rounding into form. He isn’t worried about trying to keep pace with his big brother as much as he is trying to make sure he’s hardly the only one getting to the quarterback.
“I don’t think anyone in this scheme is meant to eat up blocks,” Watt said. “We all have great opportunities. It’s awesome when those guys push the pocket. It allows the quarterback to step back and allows us to get a little wider rushes, and also get the quarterback in our hands.”
And then – Watt and the Steelers hope – on the ground.
NOTES: S Morgan Burnett (groin), LB Fort (ankle) and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (ankle) did not practice and are unlikely to play against the Bengals. … S Terrell Edmunds (ankle) and LB Vince Williams (hamstring) were full participants for a second straight day.