Watt wins AP Defensive Player of the Year

T.J. Watt became a member of an elite group of Steelers defensive legends when he was voted the 2021 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year, announced during the NFL Honors show with the award presented to him by his brother, J.J. Watt.

"I just want to thank my parents. Mom, dad, this is insane," said Watt. "My brothers, Derek and J.J., you guys have pushed me so much to get me to this point. My beautiful fiancé, Dani, for being my number one supporter. My teammates and coaches back in Pittsburgh, this is truly not possible without you guys. There are so many guys that put in so much work that goes unnoticed. That's everyone from the guys in the cafeteria to the guys that are taping ankles. This ones for all of you guys.

"I grew up coming to this awards show, I think five or six times, and never came home with hardware. But every time I left more motivated than the time I got here. I promise this only motivates me more."

Watt joined the exclusive group of Steelers who won the award, including Joe Greene (1972, 1974), Mel Blount (1975), Jack Lambert (1976), Rod Woodson (1993), James Harrison (2008) and Troy Polamalu (2010), five of the six in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"That's huge. That's why I was so honored to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers," said Watt. "I mean, talk about the legacy and the amount of legends that have walked through those halls. It's one of those things where if those guys played in that system and were so successful and won awards like this, why can't we do it too? Why can't I do it? Seeing those guys play in Pittsburgh let me know that it's possible. A lot of credit to my teammates, coaches and the upper management as well, Mr. (Art) Rooney (II), for picking me."

Watt had an epic 2021 season, tying 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 when he passed 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. His brother also won Defensive Player of the Year three times, with Watt attending and watching him win it, so for him to win it was special.

"I feel like I'm just about to be entering the prime of my career and that's why more than ever I just want to continue to find ways to get better at this game," said Watt. "That's why I love football so much. There's always room for improvement and I'm not satisfied. I'd much rather be playing in the Super Bowl this weekend than winning this award for sure.

"To be able to be recognized as the best defensive player in the year is definitely something that I strive to be. I'm not huge on individual goals, but it's tough for me not to want that when I saw my brother at the height of his career win the award three times and I always just thought to myself, why can't I do that? I'm just so motivated. I'm very honored to receive this award when there's so many successful and great players in the National Football League."

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 also is the winner of the Deacon Jones Sack Leader Award, presented to the player who led the NFL in sacks. Watt had already been voted first-team Associated Press All-Pro, 101 Awards AFC Defensive Player of the Year, PFWA Defensive Player of the Year, The Sporting News Defensive Player of the Year, All-NFL by PFWA, voted to the Pro Bowl, and the Steelers 2021 Most Valuable Player.

Steelers LB T.J. Watt won the AP Defensive Player of the Year Award for the 2021 season

In his meteoric rise to stardom since joining the Steelers as the team's No. 1 pick in 2017, Watt has gained a fanbase like no other along the way. Included in that fanbase are two of the Steelers legends who won NFL Defensive Player of the Year before him.

"He's a generational guy. He could have played in any generation," said Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount. "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."

Greene is spot on about Watt's work ethic.

Watt puts in endless work during the week to be able to pull off the sacks and the myriad of other things he does. He arrives before the crack of dawn. He stays late. Whether it's on the field, in the weight room or watching film, he gives it everything he has. 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 stand out 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."

And even with the Defensive Player of the Year award in his back pocket, he knows he still has work to do. That's what being a Watt is all about.

"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.

"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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