Harrison_James_Watt_TJ_Sack_Record
Two of a kind
T.J. Watt is following in James Harrison's game-wrecking footsteps
By Mike Prisuta Dec 22, 2021

When they bestowed the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award on Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison in January of 2009, teammate James Farrior attributed the honor to Harrison's impact having transcended Harrison's stats.

"We've got good players on this team, and every team has good players," Farrior reasoned at the time. "But he seems to be this year and last year making the plays that make the difference in the game."

It's been the same for outside linebacker T.J. Watt this season.

It's why the crowd at Heinz Field began chanting "M-V-P" after Watt emerged from the bottom of a pile with the ball in his right hand and held it aloft for all to see in the fourth quarter on Sunday afternoon against the Tennessee.

The Steelers were ahead, 16-13, with 6:41 left in regulation when Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill fumbled a snap at the Tennessee 35-yard line. The subsequent scrum for possession included Watt, Tannehill, Steelers defensive linemen Cam Heyward and Chris Wormley, Titans guard Aaron Brewer, Titans wide receiver Chester Rogers and Titans running back D'Onta Foreman.

It's why Steelers players have been campaigning hard for Watt as a candidate for DPOY this season, and why quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went as far as to insist Watt is worthy of NFL Most Valuable Player consideration.

"He should absolutely get MVP votes because that's what kind of player he is," Roethlisberger maintained.

Harrison got three of those in 2008 when he finished fourth (tied with Vikings running back Adrian Peterson) behind Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Jets QB Chad Pennington and Falcons running back Michael Turner.

"What gets you that?" former Steelers running back Merril Hoge asked. "It's impact plays that change games if not win games for you.

"Are they a little different? Yes. Is their style different? Yes. But Harrison did that that year, I remember it well. And that's what T.J.'s done this year."

Harrison amassed his 16 sacks in 15 games (he sat out the regular-season finale against Cleveland) in 2008.

He also had 101 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, an interception, three passes defensed and seven forced fumbles.

But in terms of impact plays that change games if not win games, Harrison was just getting started.

In that context Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII might be the granddaddy of them all.

Foreman continued battling Watt for possession with the two still on the ground long after umpire Carl Paganelli had signaled "First Down Steelers."

"When you got brothers, I'm pretty sure he just did that every day of his life growing up," CBS color analyst Tony Romo observed. "They're fighting for something."

The fumble recovery set up a field goal that ensured the Titans would have to score a touchdown to beat the Steelers.

Tennessee never did.

The 1.5 sacks Watt managed upped his 2021 total to a franchise single-season record 17.5.

Watt had shared the mark with Harrison (16 in 2008).

Sunday was yet another example of Watt's influence on a game at a critical juncture.

As Watt's role in an all-or-nothing two-point conversion attempt on Dec. 5 against the Ravens had been.

As Watt's strip-sack of Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith in overtime had been on Oct. 17 against Seattle.  

The Steelers' 19-13 victory over the Titans improved their record to 7-6-1.

They're 7-2 when Watt plays at least 81 percent of the defensive snaps.

They're 0-4-1 when Watt appears on 46 percent or fewer of the defensive snaps or misses a game entirely.

It's why Steelers players have been campaigning hard for Watt as a candidate for DPOY this season, and why quarterback Ben Roethlisberger recently went as far as to insist Watt is worthy of NFL Most Valuable Player consideration.

"He should absolutely get MVP votes because that's what kind of player he is," Roethlisberger maintained.

Harrison got three of those in 2008 when he finished fourth (tied with Vikings running back Adrian Peterson) behind Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Jets QB Chad Pennington and Falcons running back Michael Turner.

"What gets you that?" former Steelers running back Merril Hoge asked. "It's impact plays that change games if not win games for you.

"Are they a little different? Yes. Is their style different? Yes. But Harrison did that that year, I remember it well. And that's what T.J.'s done this year."

Harrison amassed his 16 sacks in 15 games (he sat out the regular-season finale against Cleveland) in 2008.

He also had 101 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, an interception, three passes defensed and seven forced fumbles.

But in terms of impact plays that change games if not win them, Harrison was just getting started.

His 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII might be the granddaddy of them all.

Watt woke up on Monday morning with 53 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, four passes defensed, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, along with his NFL-leading 17.5 sacks.

The NFL single-season record for sacks is 22.5 by Michael Strahan of the Giants in 2001.

The Lions' Al "Bubba" Baker's set the unofficial mark of 23 in 1978 (sacks didn't become an official statistic until 1982).

Harrison referenced Watt's proximity to Strahan while extended congratulations to Watt on social media for setting the Steelers' single-season sacks standard.

"Go on ahead and chase down that NFL single-season sack record and become the new holder of that, too," Harrison posted. 

Baltimore's failed two-point conversion at the conclusion of what became a 20-19 Steelers' survival in early December was a play on which Watt wasn't credited with a sack, a quarterback hit or a pass defensed.

And yet it resonates as much as any of the 603 defensive snaps he's participated in this season.

Rather than kick the extra point that would have forced overtime, the Ravens tried to win the game with 12 seconds left in regulation.

Watt wouldn't let them.

"That two-point conversion, they got the perfect play dialed in," Hoge assessed. "They got what they needed. They got what they wanted, their best receiver (tight end Mark Andrews) in the flat, their biggest cat, all alone. And their quarterback, technically, now just has to make the throw. And T.J. puts him in a bad spot, he can't make it.

"That's what you need. He's done that time and time again throughout the season."

Lamar Jackson, the quarterback who missed Andrews, acknowledged Watt's mere presence influenced the play.

"T.J. Watt's got range," Jackson contended. "He's a long guy. I had to throw around him and try to make something happen."

That's the way it can go against a two-time, first-team All-Pro. 

Against the 2020 DPOY runner-up (to Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald).

Watt was third in the voting in 2019 (behind Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones).

After all that, Watt's national reputation is such that he even gets credit for what he wasn't responsible for at times.

Moments before the two-point conversion, Watt produced a strip-sack of Jackson on second-and-10 from the Ravens' 40-yard line with 1:21 left in the fourth quarter that was accompanied by a penalty flag (it pushed Watt's total for the game to a career-high 3.5; the ball bounced out of bounds).

"Usually it's going to go against the offense for a hold late and usually it's going to be on whoever's blocking T.J. Watt," Romo announced. "I'm going to go out on a limb. I'm going to say it's the right tackle."

The flag was actually thrown at left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who had been trying to pry outside linebacker Alex Highsmith off Jackson.

Watt has become that ever-present in his fifth NFL season.

Hoge has seen enough to classify Watt as comparable to the best edge rushers in Steelers' history, and to the best to ever assault an NFL pocket.   

"I practiced against two of the greats in football history, Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd every day," Hoge said. "I played against Lawrence Taylor. I played against Reggie White, played against Derrick Thomas. That's the majority of the great pass rushers, I know there's others. I played against Bruce Smith, although he's a defensive end, and I understand Reggie is, too.

"To be a really good pass rusher you have to be good at a lot of things. T.J. makes sacks as a bull rusher, spin move, rip move, he has about every way you can rush a passer in the book. There's not one way that he gets to the quarterback.

"He's completely different than all of those build-wise and how he comes after you. But the one thing they all have that you have to have, he has fabulous hands. He is terrific with his hands. And really his feet, hips and hands work well together, and that's ultimately what makes a great pass rusher and defender and he has that. And he has all those different ways to attack a blocker.

"I'd hate to be the guy blocking him because you just don't know what's coming, and he eventually gets you on something."

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