By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Last December, the Steelers defense rattled Tom Brady at a level we're not used to seeing. Much of their success that Sunday traces back to their wrecking ball of an edge rusher, T.J. Watt.
Much-hyped as a first-round pick in the shadow of older brother J.J. Watt, T.J. made a name entirely for himself in 2018. His second-year leap directly contributed to the last time the Super Bowl champs tasted defeat. Watt sacked Brady and hit him three times en route to a 17-10 win for the Steelers, and his 13 total sacks tied him for seventh in the NFL.
The Steelers mostly continued to play the same zone coverages that Brady historically picks apart, and Brady went an efficient 25-for-36 (69.4 percent) passing. But when he couldn't complete throws or make a quick-enough read, it happened because Watt disrupted things. Mostly matched up against right tackle Marcus Cannon, Watt racked up a sack and three QB hits. Tight end Rob Gronkowski struggled to contain him, too. Watt lined up both wide and closer to the line, and blocking him proved daunting regardless of those added wrinkles.
Pittsburgh boasts a defensive front with no glaring weakness, and they simply won their matchup in last season's win. Defensive linemen Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Stephon Tuitt stunted and twisted their way into the backfield, especially in the fourth quarter. Bud Dupree flanked Watt with a QB hit and holding call drawn against ex-left tackle Trent Brown. Dupree will now line up across second-year pro Isaiah Wynn, who is expected to make his NFL debut Sunday night at left tackle.
But through all their defensive success, Watt proved to be the consistent theme. For Cannon and whoever lines up at tight end, slowing Watt down will be paramount. Now in year three, Watt may be even better than he was in December.
"He’s always working, he’s always trying to get to the quarterback, always coming from a different angle, trying new things, doing the things that he does the best and doing those all the time," Cannon said Wednesday on Watt. "He’s getting better. He was already good, and now he’s getting better than he already was."
Brady still found ways to exploit the Steelers' zone schemes in the last game, particularly over the middle of the field. The problem was giving him enough time to throw. Watt spearheaded their efforts up front, but it's the kind of pass-rush that has given the Patriots trouble over the years. They can't key on just one guy.
"They have a very good front, they're very disruptive. They've led the league in sacks the last two years – that's pretty impressive," said head coach Bill Belichick on Wednesday. "They're very disruptive, they're very good up there. They cause a lot of penalties – holding penalties and things like that – which can set the offense back, in addition to plays they make. Tackles for loss, sacks, quarterback pressures and things like that.
"That's a good group. They play hard, they're aggressive, they're well-coached. Really, it's the front-five, their outside linebackers are defensive ends. Whatever you want to call them, you include them in it too. The inside three are good."
As important as it will be to contain Watt this time around, ultimately the task could be up to Cannon to simply get his revenge. The right tackle has posted some outstanding games against high-end edge rushers, notably against the Chargers' Joey Bosa in January's AFC Divisional round. So it's not like he's incapable.
The entire offensive line is capable of slowing the Steelers down up front. We've seen it before. But for a retooled group, it remains to be seen how close they come doing their jobs in concert. The hope is they hit the right notes against Watt on Sunday night.
"My goal when I’m in here is to make sure that I’m doing everything to make sure the guys around me are trusting me, and that’s the approach all of us are taking," Cannon said. "We understand that we need to trust each other and do things that put others' trust in us."
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].