Labriola On

Labriola on T.J., stuffing Saquon, HOF

Ready or not, here it comes:

• There is no argument that T.J. Watt was a great use of a first-round pick by the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft, but at the time that sentiment wasn't nearly as unanimous as it is now.

• Here is a sampling of some of the instant analysis that followed the team's use of the 30th overall pick on a player who at the time was recognized more for being J.J. Watt's brother than for his potential as an NFL star:

• USA Today gave the pick a "B" and then offered: "The Steelers are just going to keep drafting these first-round edge rushers until they find a good one. Watt isn't the most explosive athlete … Pittsburgh has gone after workout warriors in the past, so maybe this change in approach will land them the pass rusher they've been searching for." (EDITOR'S NOTE: Wonder what this evaluator thinks of Bud Dupree, their No. 1 pick in 2015, now?)

• Bleacher Report graded the pick as a "B-": "J.J. Watt's younger brother would still get a lot of play from NFL teams without the name. He can bring pressure from a number of gaps, and he understands how to use leverage to beat blocks. Watt is a bit too aggressive against the run at times, but he'll find a place as a pass-rusher in this defense."

• And this from ESPN: "Watt will be highly motivated, is a unique athlete and has the Watt pedigree as a younger brother of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt. With plenty of other defensive options available at No. 30, including Washington cornerback Kevin King and Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, this pick doesn't come without questions. Some evaluators graded Watt as a second-rounder. He started one season at Wisconsin, and though he was productive with 11.5 sacks, he might need time to work his way into the Steelers' nuanced 3-4 defense."

• Among the Steelers coaching staff and personnel department, there was some discussion about whether Watt even was the best edge rusher, but in Coach Mike Tomlin's mind there was no doubt. Tomlin dismissed any notion that Youngstown State's Derek Rivers, at the time a hot prospect in the opinion of many draft evaluators, could be had in a later round and turn out to be as good or better than Watt.

• Here is what Pro Football Focus wrote about Rivers leading up to the draft: "STAT TO KNOW: Had a sack, a hit, and a hurry in 14 pass-rushing snaps at the Senior Bowl. One of the top athletes in the entire class. Fantastic burst off the line of scrimmage when he gets an obvious pass situation. Almost never came off the field for Youngstown State. Played 79 of 83 snaps against West Virginia and all 58 snaps against Eastern Washington. Plays with great leverage against the run and as a bull-rusher. Sinks his hips and keeps arms locked out. Extremely disciplined against the run. Carried out his assignments almost to a fault at times. Has the ability to drop off the line of scrimmage and play in space if need be."

• General Manager Kevin Colbert liked Watt, and when Tomlin dug in and refused to be moved off his opinion, the decision on the pecking order at that position was clinched. Then when it came time for the Steelers to make their first-round selection, the process went smoothly.

• Now entering his fourth NFL season, T.J. Watt is seen as the kind of player who might become the seventh different member of the franchise to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. And if Watt does bring home the award this season, it will be because of the kind of play he made last Monday night against the Giants.

• The situation was this: The Giants had just scored a touchdown on a 41-yard pass to Darius Slayton to take a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter, and in response to that the Steelers offense had gone three-and-out. Following the punt, the Giants had the ball at their own 35-yard line.

• On first down, the Giants went with a quick pass play because they had been having no success running Saquon Barkley on first down. As Watt came off the ball at the snap, he recognized the play was going to be a quick-game pass and that he'd have no chance to get to the quarterback. So he dropped into coverage, and then made an athletic play to make the interception on a pass intended for tight end Evan Engram. Six plays later, the Steelers scored a touchdown.

• Voters for significant postseason awards love statistics, and so having numbers in a lot of different categories help a player's candidacy. Watt will end up with enough sacks, and it could come down to his ability to make plays in other categories as to whether he can sway the voters to choose him over Aaron Donald, or his brother.

STUFFING SAQUON
• In the win over the New York Giants last Monday night, the Steelers made a tactical decision in regards to their defensive approach for the game, and in the context of the totality of the situation it made perfect sense.

• They decided they were not going to allow the Giants to control the flow and protect their second-year quarterback with a running game spearheaded by Saquon Barkley.

• The particulars of how the Steelers accomplished the task isn't as important as the reasoning behind it, and the impact on the outcome was as undeniable as the visual of Barkley under siege from a horde of defenders every time he was handed the ball.

• With no ability to gauge what the Giants' plan might be as a result of the combination of a new coaching staff and no preseason games, the Steelers made a prudent decision to force quarterback Daniel Jones to beat them by taking away his primary offensive weapon. It's a rather common tactic in the NFL: Neutralize, or at least minimize, the opponent's primary strength and force the rest of the unit to handle the heavy lifting.

• The Giants handed the ball to Barkley 15 times, and on eight of those carries he lost yardage. On his 15 carries, Barkley ran forward for 27 yards and backward for 21. The Steelers long have been a team that makes it tough for opponents to run the ball successfully, but what happened in MetLife Stadium was Chuck Foreman in Super Bowl IX stuff.

• The "why" the Steelers chose this defensive approach was self-evident, and what made it a plausible strategy was the talent in the secondary and the confidence the coaches have in that. There were instances where cornerbacks and safeties were left on their own in coverage more often than they normally would be, and Jones and his receivers were able to take advantage to some degree.

• But the pass defense – the combination of rush and coverage – made enough plays (three sacks, eight hits on the quarterback, and two interceptions) to limit the points the Giants managed to generate based on their success throwing the ball, and in the meantime Ben Roethlisberger and the offense were putting up three touchdowns and a couple of field goals to build a lead of 16 points with just under six minutes to play. Good enough to win the game.

• This idea of loading up to stop one element of the opposing offense at the expense of another was something Bill Cowher used to use with success against the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2004-05 seasons, only he went the opposite way.

• Cowher was more concerned about the big-play potential of Cincinnati's passing game that was triggered by Carson Palmer with wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh doing most of the damage down the field. And so Cowher had his defense concentrate on neutralizing that facet of the Bengals offense and left it to his linemen and inside linebackers to deal with running back Rudi Johnson.

• The first time he employed the strategy was on Oct. 3, 2004 at Heinz Field, when the 1-2 Bengals visited the 2-1 Steelers. While Johnson rushed for 123 yards on 24 carries (5.1 average) and scored a touchdown, Palmer was 20-for-37 (only 54 percent) for 164 yards, with one touchdown, two interceptions, and a rating of 52.1. The defense harassed Palmer and blanketed his receivers, and he was left to dink-and-dunk around to the tune of an average of 4.4 yards per attempt in a 28-17 Steelers victory.

• Not surprisingly, what followed were many questions and a lot of angst about what was perceived as a porous run defense, just as there were questions and angst after last Monday night's win over the Giants about the pass defense, but both Cowher and Tomlin did what was necessary to put their teams in the best situation to win the game.

• By the way, the 2004 Steelers finished the season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in run defense.

A DIFFERENT WAY TO STOP THE RUN
• During the run-up to this regular season, a frequent question had to do with how the Steelers run defense would fare without Javon Hargrave, or more accurately, how the run defense would fare without a "true run-stuffing nose tackle." All along, I contended Ben Roethlisberger and the offense would be an asset to the run defense, and a vivid example of an opponent's running game being neutralized by a team's offense was on display on opening Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

• In one of the two Baltimore-Cleveland matchups in 2019, the Browns pulled off an upset, 40-25, because the Ravens usually stout defense allowed 193 rushing yards and four touchdowns, with Nick Chubb personally accounting for 165 of those yards and three of those touchdowns.

• Last Sunday, the Browns again got their running game going early, and this time they had Kareem Hunt to supplement Chubb. In the first half, Chubb and Hunt combined for 79 rushing yards and averaged 6.6 per attempt doing it, but because Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense put up 24 points while the Browns' pair of backs were doing their thing, the halftime score of 24-6 rendered Chubb and Hunt a moot point for the game's final 30 minutes.

• The Ravens defense never really stopped the Browns running attack. Baltimore's offense did.

BEING REAL REGARDING HOF NOMINEES
• On the subject of run-stuffers, one of the Steelers' modern-era players who made his living doing that and remains a fan favorite to this day, was one of five players nominated for induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2021. Those five: Casey Hampton, Heath Miller, Joey Porter, Hines Ward, and 2020 finalist Alan Faneca.

• It's a realistic hope that Faneca finally breaks through the finalist barrier and is elected to be part of the Class of 2021 after being so close so many times, but Ward faces an uphill battle to be a future inductee, and for the other three it's barely a pipedream.

• Ward finished his career with 1,000 receptions, but the inflation of receiving statistics has devalued even that significant number. The case for Ward is going to have to be about more than statistics. If he's elected, it likely will have to do with the physical way he played his position with some oomph provided by his Super Bowl MVP Award.

• But even winning a Super Bowl MVP Award doesn't guarantee a bust in Canton for receivers. There have been six wide receivers to win that award, and Lynn Swann and Jerry Rice are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, and Santonio Holmes have no chance to be elected, and Ward is the sixth.

• Hampton, Miller, and Porter lack the pizzazz on their resumes, and they also would have to overcome the case of "Steelers fatigue" the voters undoubtedly will have for a while after Troy Polamalu, Donnie Shell, and Bill Cowher are belatedly inducted next August as part of the Class of 2020, to be joined most likely by Bill Nunn and possibly Faneca as part of the Class of 2021.

• Which makes it even easier to understand why Steelers President Art Rooney II created the Hall of Honor.

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