T.J. Watt has flirted with Defensive Player of the Year for more than a full calendar year.
In 2020, it appeared as if he’d take home the same award his older brother, J.J., has won three times. Then, Aaron Donald swooped in to take the award for the third time in his career.
This time around, there might not be room for Donald — in the midst of another stellar season — to steal Watt’s shine. A sack total of 21.5 sure creates some distance between Watt and the rest of the pack. Hitting 22.5 (or more) might just wipe the rest of the field from consideration.
That — and a permanent place in NFL history — await Watt this weekend. The edge rusher has a chance to tie or break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5 in Pittsburgh’s final regular-season game against the rival Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
“I only get one chance at this,” Watt said this week, via the Associated Press. “You only get to play for so long. It has consumed a lot of my life and I’m completely OK with that. The people around me truly push me and understand my obsession with this game and wanting to be the best.”
Strahan set the mark in the 2001 season while also leading the league in tackles for loss and forced fumbles. Since then, two players have been able to come within a half-sack of his mark (Jared Allen, Justin Houston), while Donald and J.J. Watt finished two sacks shy of Strahan (Donald in 2018; Watt in 2012 and 2014). Watt and Donald won Defensive Player of the Year in each of those seasons.
Should Watt tie Strahan, he’s all but guaranteed to win the award. The odds only improve if he passes Strahan.
There will be an argument made against Watt in an attempt to diminish such an achievement that relies on the additional game the NFL is playing for the first time in the 2021 season. But that argument is moot, because Watt hasn’t played a full season due to injury.
Watt has played in 14 games this season, and truly he’s only played about 13 1/2 games, considering he sat out the second half of Pittsburgh’s loss to Minnesota. Strahan needed all 16 games to reach 22.5, and secured the record in a slightly controversial fashion when Packers quarterback Brett Favre gave himself up with Strahan bearing down on him.
One of Watt’s 21.5 sacks came in somewhat similar fashion on Monday night, when Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield escaped the pocket and slid near the line of scrimmage, with Watt nearest to him. Watt received credit for the sack, though he didn’t actually take down Mayfield.
No matter, of course, if Watt smashes through Strahan’s record on Sunday. The same goes for the Steelers if they can defeat the Ravens and find a way into the playoffs.
Regardless of how the Steelers’ season finishes, Watt’s teammates and coaches remain mesmerized by his performance, especially amid the injuries he’s battled in the 2021 campaign.
“I think he’s the best in the world,” Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “I’m glad I don’t have to game plan for him in games.”
Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward isn’t surprised by Watt’s production because he’s had a front-row seat to watch his teammate work toward becoming a star.
“I don’t really go ‘wow’ because I understand the preparation he puts in,” Heyward said. “I understand what he does in the offseason. This guy is locked in no matter what the circumstances are. He’s a game-changer and a game-wrecker.”
Watt will look to wreck Sunday’s important game by doing much of the same. He just might rewrite the record books in the process.
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