Kevin Gorman: T.J. Watt flips the switch to become a superhero for the Steelers
T.J. Watt stood at his locker, speaking softly about making splash plays when he casually mentioned the switch.
Off the field, the Pittsburgh Steelers third-year outside linebacker tries to be the personification of professionalism.
“You can always lead by example,” Watt said. “That’s what I’m trying to show my team: I will do whatever the heck it takes to produce to be able to help this team win. That goes a long way without having to say much.”
Then he flips the switch.
“Game day, it’s a whole different animal,” Watt said. “You have the juices flowing, so I’m not afraid to say anything on game day.”
Don’t buy the humble act, Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams says, shaking his head in disagreement. Williams sees Watt in a different light, as an aggressive competitor with a killer instinct.
“He’s not some soft-spoken, quiet, humble dude. He wants to play that game, but T.J.’s a dog,” Williams said. “We know what he’s capable of. And he’s a professional. He comes to work every day, tries to be the best every single day. He knows what it is. But if he wants to keep it cool like that and play the whole Clark Kent and Superman thing like that, I guess I’ll play along with him.”
Whatever the role Watt prefers, the 6-foot-4, 252-pounder is playing superhero for the Steelers through their first seven games. He leads the team with 17 quarterback hits, six sacks and three forced fumbles. He also has 23 tackles, three fumble recoveries, three pass breakups and an interception. Yet Watt is his own harshest critic, talking not about the plays he has made this season but rather the ones he has missed.
“There’s always more plays to be made,” Watt said. “That’s how I’ll always look at my film and our film as a team. I think there’s definitely some good splash plays. Every time I’m around the ball, I try and knock it out. I’m trying to create any type of elite-level play that I can. I’m trying to take plays from good to great to elite.”
That’s an attitude that has impressed Watt’s teammates, who have watched with admiration and anticipation as the 2017 first-round draft pick has evolved from All-Rookie team to Pro Bowl pick to performing like an All-Pro. After leading the Steelers with 21 quarterback hits, 13 sacks and six forced fumbles last season, Watt set a goal of making more splash plays this season. And he is delivering on that promise.
“He’s going to be the guy that’s going to take it to a different level every single year that he plays this game of football,” Williams said. “Some dudes, you can honestly say the sky is the limit, and there’s no limitations on a guy like that. He’s a pro. It’s how serious he takes the game from a very young age. Some guys come into the NFL and don’t know this game is a business. It’s constant self-critique, constant film watching, constant self-improvement, self-motivation.”
That’s why Watt reminds Williams of another Steelers linebacker, comparing his maturity as a rookie to that of Ryan Shazier. Both players came into the league with a veteran’s mentality, as much in terms of their preparation as their immediate impact.
“I said he was the most NFL-ready rookie I’d ever met in my life,” Williams said of Watt, “so none of this really surprises me at all because of the approach he takes to the game and how much he cares about it. … So he’s ahead of the game. When you have guys like that, you know they’re going to have a tremendous amount of success because their starting point is further ahead.”
What Watt doesn’t want to hear is his brother J.J’s season-ending injury serves as motivation. The five-time All-Pro defensive end for the Houston Texans — a three-time NFL defensive player of the year — suffered a torn pectoral last week against the Oakland Raiders.
“Obviously, it’s devastating for him, three out of four years,” T.J. said. “Just to see him work and have a really phenomenal season like he was having … it makes me appreciate being healthy and being able to play but it’s not going to make me play harder.”
That’s when Watt loses his smile, showing how quickly he can flip the switch.
“If we were having this conversation on game day,” Watt said, “it would be a whole lot more intense, I’ll tell you that.”
Find the man a phone booth.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .