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Watt gets stamp of approval
T.J. Watt has earned the ultimate approval 'from previous legends who have donned the black and gold'
By Teresa Varley Feb 07, 2022

"The only approval any Steeler should seek is to earn the approval from previous legends who have donned the black and gold. And if you've really earned their respect, they'll say, 'You could've played with us.'"

When Troy Polamalu shared those words during his Pro Football Hall of Fame speech, those who understand the Steelers' culture nodded because they know it's the truth.

What they also know is it's not often that the legends of the 1970s, those who won four Super Bowls and now wear Hall of Fame Gold Jackets, utter those words.

It's rare, it's special, reserved for only the best of the best, the ones they feel are truly worthy of it.

Well, in the eyes of the best of the best, they feel outside linebacker T.J. Watt is worthy of those words.

"There's no question about it," said Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount. "He's a generational guy. He could have played in any generation. Those guys just don't come along that often.

"He's a difference maker. It's his motor. He is just one of those guys that keeps coming. He always just seems to be in a different gear. You can't teach that desire. It has to come from deep down within you.

"I think without any question at all he could have played on those Super Bowl teams we were on."

He isn't the only one who feels that way.

Joe Greene, the man who is the definition of a Steelers defensive player, completely agrees.

"You definitely have to say that he could because of the intensity that he brings to the game and the desire," said Greene. "The separation between any player, those that command and demand respect, is the attitude that they bring to the game, to the position. That's the separation line. The attitude. The desire. For them, winning the game and beating the opposition is the number one priority.

"Just looking at him, his physical stature for an edge rusher, he has length, he has the legs and the arms. The most important of all other than the physical stature is he has the want to and the desire. That is what makes it happen for him. He has the motor. That's the engine that drives him. I had the size and the ingredients, but what was missing with me was the speed. What helped me was my desire to play, my desire to win, and I see that same thing in T.J.'s effort on every play. You see that intensity. You can't coach that."

Watt has had heaps of praise bestowed upon him this season from everywhere, but the source of these comments just hit differently. He understands what they mean. He understands the history. He understands the tradition. He understands what it means to proudly wear the black and gold.

And he understands what Polamalu's words meant, that the only approval you should seek is from those legends. And for him to get that approval, he gets it.

"That truly is the ultimate compliment," said Watt. "That's why I feel like it's so important that every player here truly understands the tradition of this organization, what it means to be the Pittsburgh Steelers, to have the greats, the absolute legends of not only this organization but the National Football League, saying you can play with them really is special. It's really, really special."

Those legends, Greene, Blount, Polamalu, along with Jack Lambert, Rod Woodson and James Harrison, are all part of an elite group.

They are Steelers who won the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

And when that is award is announced on Thursday night at the NFL Honors, Watt rightfully should join that elite group.

"I am biased. I do coach him. I do watch him prepare and work and know what he puts into it, and I know it's Defensive Player of the Year-caliber and worthy," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "But statistics alone, he needs no endorsement from me. Most of his peers we compare him to, they make plays in the pass-rushing game like he does, and he led the league in sacks. But it's the things he does outside of that realm. It's the coverage plays, it's the pass-breakups, it's the run game. He plays a complete game. He does and he always has. He causes turnovers. His forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, not only this year but over the course of his career, I'll put up against anybody in the National Football League. He does more than sack the quarterback. And so, I don't feel like he needs an endorsement from me, to be quite honest. I think all you have to do is look at the analytical element of it. I saw a stat recently where it was referring to rush-rate. Yes, he's got the highest rush-rate of anybody in the NFL since some year where they were referring to Reggie White, for example. None of that surprises me. I watch him week in and week out inside stadiums, but not only that, in his preparation."

Watt has already been voted first-team Associated Press All-Pro,101 Awards AFC Defensive Player of the Year, Sporting News Defensive Player of the Year, PFWA Defensive Player of the Year, All-NFL by PFWA, voted to the Pro Bowl, and just about any other offseason honor you can earn.

Next up should be the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Watt, the Steelers 2021 MVP, tied Hall of Famer Michael Strahan's NFL single-season record with 22.5 sacks, leading the NFL in sacks for the second-straight year.

On his way to tying Strahan, Watt set a new Steelers single-season sack record in 2021 when he passed linebacker James Harrison who had 16 sacks in 2008.

"It's all about tradition here and to be able to put your footprint in as part of the tradition here is special," said Watt. "Doing this with such a wonderful group of guys is what it's all about. To be able to be a part of this franchise hopefully for a long time, this is very special. But I really do have more work to do."

Watt is one of only two players in NFL history to have 20 plus sacks in 14 or fewer games since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. The only other one to do it was the legendary Reggie White, who had 21 sacks in 12 games in 1987 in a strike-shortened season.

He also became the 12th player since sacks were counted as a statistic to have at least 20 sacks in a single season, something his brother, Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt, did twice.

Steelers LB T.J. Watt tied the NFL's single season sack record during the 2021 season

Watt, who has 72 career sacks which ranks fourth in Steelers history, also joined White and his brother, J.J. Watt, as the only players since 1982 to have 70 plus sacks in their first five seasons in the NFL.

Watt puts in endless work during the week to be able to pull off the sacks, on the field, in the weight room and watching film. But somehow, he manages to make it look effortless on game day. He just has a knack for being able to shed off those who have the daunting task of keeping him away from their quarterback.

And when he gets to the opposing quarterback, you know what is going to happen. He is going to take him down and then his signature high kick is coming as the crowd explodes.

"Once you get a sack it's more like a blackout feeling," said Watt. "You do the leg kick and just try to get the crowd as much into it as possible, especially at home. And then you kind of go to the bench and it hits you a little bit like that was cool to have another one.

"But it's more just wanting to be a game-wrecker week in and week out and trying to perform the best that I can without putting my other teammates in jeopardy."

A game-wrecker.

It's Watt's goal. And a goal he achieved.

It's a description many have used to characterize his play. And it's accurate.

"He's one of the best defensive players in the game," said defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. "He's the best outside linebacker. He's the best defensive player to me. To have a guy that can change the game in one play.

"He is a playmaker. He is a rare breed.

"He is a game-wrecker."

Even those who have never been sacked by him, have never had to face his fury, get it.

"He is a game-changer and a game-wrecker," said recently retired quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "I've been a part of guys like that, Troy Polamalu, who can change a football game. It doesn't happen on defense that often. To be a literal game-changer on defense is something completely special."

As he has grown in his game, grown overall, Watt truly understands that being a game-wrecker is what matters. While his individual stats standout like no other, for him it's not about those stats. It's about having an impact on the final outcome of the game.

"I think it's something that I set out to be each game, a game-wrecker," said Watt. "It's definitely a goal of mine to be described in that way. I've gotten away from the statistical goals and all that stuff. I'm focused on being the best player I can be week in and week out.

"It's so tough to be consistent in this league. I just try to put together good performance after good performance and if that classifies me as a game-wrecker, then I'll definitely take that.

"But I still have a lot of work to do."

For a player who is in serious consideration for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Watt continually talks about having more work to do. He is never satisfied. He always wants to do more, accomplish more, and help his team as much as he can.

"It's just part of the way that I was raised," said Watt. "I know there's so many more areas where I can improve and where I want to improve. I just love this game. I love studying it and finding ways to continue to get better and ask questions. Trying to find ways where I can continue to get better for the team. It's so much fun to make those plays. It's so hard to make plays, but it's so fun to try to find different ways to make plays and that's why this game is so special."

Watt has found a multitude of ways to make plays, from sacks, to forced fumbles, and everything in between. He was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his dominating play against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13, which included 3.5 sacks, six tackles, six quarterback hits and a forced fumble. And keep in mind he missed practice the week leading up to the game while on the Reserve/COVID-19 List. It was the second time this season he won AFC Defensive Player of the Week, also doing so in Week 6.

"It's just one of those things that you can't take a breath and the season is so long," said Watt. "Early in my career, I was able to have good performances, but I wasn't able to really stack them on top of each other and they kind of came in waves. I always try to find ways to continue to study film the best that I can and practicing hard is one of those things that late in the season you just have to continue to knuckle up and practice hard knowing that the guy you're going up against that week is practicing and preparing as hard as you."

And when it comes to that preparation, those same coaches, the same opponents that sing Watt's praises on a weekly basis, well they are also game planning to find way to stop him, double-teaming him, and doing their best to try to keep him from being a game-wrecker.

"It's something I've noticed more this year than any other year and for me it's been tough at times to figure out how to crack certain codes," said Watt. "But it's also a challenge for all of us, and a challenge for everybody up front. It's always going to be a challenge. That's one thing Coach (Mike) Tomlin said, this stuff isn't going away, so I've got to get used to it. It's one of those things I'm still adjusting to. I'm still trying to find a way to attack it.

"It's a challenge I love."


Ah, yes, Watt has a love.

And it's football.

"I love football with all my heart," said Watt. "This is what I love to do. I'm the luckiest man in the world to get to do this for a living. I'm putting everything that I possibly can to become the best player that I can possibly be. Not only for myself, but for my teammates, for the City of Pittsburgh. People that would kill to be in my position. I feel like I haven't lost sight of that.

"I truly am so lucky to do this. That's why I put so much into it. That's why so much passion comes out on game days because it's just so authentic and real and nothing here is fake. I love doing what I do."

You can see that love when he plays. Like Blount and Greene said, it comes out in his 'want to' and desire. It's visible after one of his sacks when he fires up the crowd with his high kick and energy.

"I just love the physicality," said Watt. "I love the chess match of it all. I love the week leading up to it, the process almost more than the game. It's those mind games throughout the week where I'm going to get an extra rep here. I'm going to study an extra clip of film. I'm going to take care of my body a little bit more because I know that right tackle, quarterback and running back are doing as much as me. Once you get to game day, I know that I have put in more work than him. When they look in your eyes and they see that I'm more prepared than them. I truly love the process more than anything.

"The most important things to me are the intangibles. The things you can't necessarily measure, the heart, the want to and the getting after the ball. Growing up, my dad (John Watt) always talked about having the want to, the grittiness and the hustle factor. That's in all of us, and only you can know how much you are truly giving."

And what Watt gives on a regular basis is 110%, and then some.

"I just want to be the best every day. I really do," said Watt. "I was not a five-star recruit coming out of high school. I never had the frame, the speed that a lot of people wanted. I was hurt in college a little bit which gave me perspective as to how much I love the game. I saw the blueprint of (my brother) J.J. (Watt) from my household. He drank the same water and milk and ate the same meals I did and was able to build such a great career. I thought to myself, why can't I do that?

"It's one of those things that the more I put into this, the more that I'm getting out of it and the more I want to keep pouring into it to see how far I can take it.

"More than anything I want to continue to perform to bring a Super Bowl home to Pittsburgh. That's the number one goal and it will be until the day that I retire."

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