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Pro Bowl Notebook: Watt's always team first

Watt not talking the talk: In one week, the NFL will announce all of their top awards during the annual NFL Honors show, and if the voters get it right, linebacker T.J. Watt should be announced as the league's Defensive Player of the Year.

"Look at the stats," said Cameron Heyward following the AFC's Pro Bowl practice in Las Vegas on Thursday. "Look at what he does when he is in there. He's a Watt, so he basically should get it."

The stats, yes, they speak for themselves, especially after Watt tied Michael Strahan's single-season NFL sack record with 22.5 sacks in 2021.

But when it comes to talking about the honor, Watt doesn't like to speak for himself, rather just the opposite. He has been asked about the potential of winning the award for weeks now, and it's one topic he doesn't like to focus on as he is always team first.

"All of that stuff is out of my control," said Watt, uncomfortable talking about it during Pro Bowl media availability. "I appreciate people asking about it, but I haven't perfected the right answer yet. Obviously, I don't love talking about it."

And talking at the Pro Bowl, while he loves the honor of making the game along with Heyward, and Diontae Johnson and Najee Harris who were added as replacement players, there is only one thing he truly wants to be doing this week – getting ready to play in the Super Bowl.

"Being here means you didn't get the job done. You're not playing in the big one that matters," said Watt. "To be able to be here with Cam, Diontae, Najee, is a special experience. Also, around the best of the best in the NFL to get ideas from guys and pick their brains is always a fun experience.

"Me, Najee and Cam were on the bus ride over here talking small. I am sure at some point this weekend we'll talk about goals and things moving forward for our team. But right now, just having fun."

Check out photos of Steelers players practicing for the 2022 Pro Bowl in Las Vegas, Nevada

Leaders of the pack: One of the topics that is bound to come up with any Steelers player this offseason is the team moving forward without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who retired after 18 seasons.

"He was kind of the 'Wow, I'm playing in the NFL moment' going up against him in seven-on-seven my rookie year," said Watt. "A tremendous talent, a Gold Jacket guy. To be able to watch his career up close. My locker was next to him my rookie year. Just very special to the Pittsburgh community, you can see how much they love and respect him for all he has done for the city. It was a really cool experience to share the locker room with him."

Now that they aren't sharing a locker room any longer, Watt and Heyward will be called upon to take even a bigger leadership role, something they are both ready for.

"You have a guy that was a constant voice in the locker room for 18 years and there's obviously going to be some sort of void there and we need to fill it," said Watt. "Obviously it's going to be Cam, myself and then we're going to find a guy on the offensive side of the ball that wants that role as well. I feel very confident with the guys we have right now." 

Heyward is now the team's most tenured player in black and gold after completing his 11th season, and he understands the significance of that.

"Leading by example and making sure I uphold the tradition," said Heyward. "When I first got here, I was trying to be a sponge and learn a lot. Now I have to do that for other guys. Just trying to help them realize what was set before…a hard-nose defense, opportunistic offense, seizing the moment, having good special teams.

"It's a collective unit. That's what the Pittsburgh Steelers have been about. That's what it's always going to be about even after my time."

Another change the team is facing is the retirement of defensive coordinator Keith Butler last month. Heyward said they will miss him, but he has faith in what the team is going to do.

"I have to be consistent in my approach with different changes," said Heyward. "I have to be able to change on the fly and be ready for whatever is coming at me. I have faith in our staff and our team to put together the best team, the best staff that we can, and we'll see what happens."

Two of a kind: Second-year linebacker Alex Highsmith had a strong season lining up outside opposite of Watt all year, but he beat himself up somewhat regarding his numbers. Highsmith had a respectable six sacks in 2021 but wants more and plans on continuing to follow Watt's path and work ethic to get there, saying he would even like to spend time working out with him in Wisconsin this offseason.

"I think he's taken a big jump," said Watt. "It really helped having a couple of games (starting in 2020). It was very unfortunate that Bud (Dupree) got hurt that back half of (Alex's) rookie season, but it allowed Alex to get a lot of those game reps and have a little bit of a transition into his second year. I know he didn't get the stats he wanted, but I told him it's not about the stats. It's about playing your game one play at a time and those plays will come.

"It's about taking that jump. He is training hard, focusing on his diet. I know he is getting married so his off the field life is good. But I would love to get him up to Wisconsin for a week or so."

One of the advantages to joining Watt for the offseason workout is it's all about football. Plain and simple.

"He'd fit in well," said Watt. "I always tell guys, training back home is different than everywhere else, just because it's so football specific. I'm not training to be a professional bench presser. I'm trying to be the best football player I can be, so it's always a little unique and different from what guys are used to training like."