Two days after Trent Jordan Watt was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round, I had an opportunity, along with the great Bill Hillgrove, to interview T.J. in the North Club at Heinz Field.
In front of a number of well-behaved but highly energetic Steelers fans, T.J. took to the friendly “grilling” extremely well. He was spot on, as they say. And this is “Watt” I heard:
Several things immediately came to the forefront. Although T.J. is his own man, and looks forward to building his own identity as a player, he has all the respect in the world for the greatness of his three-peat NFL Defensive Player of the Year, brother J.J. Watt. And while a mere informal conversation between strangers and a live audience isn’t going to reveal much, his persona glowed with sincerity and warmth that began with a firm handshake. He digs the fans.
T.J. is quick to credit people in his life, quick to recognize the value others have invested in him, and he doesn’t shy from the fact that he’s virtually a rookie's “rookie” on defense, having only made the jump from offense 18 months ago.
Despite that, he's confident without being arrogant, forceful without getting “face-full,” and determined to walk before he talks. I liked him immediately.
When you sit close, and listen close, all the positives, the essentials, the eye contact to body language pluses check in. I’m looking forward to training camp. The young man has a true sense of humility about him that I find refreshing in a world of “It’s all about me.”
Having said this, I had to break into the vault ahead of time, and here's “Watt” I saw as we got to kibitzing at Heinz Field:
After I finished watching film, I sat back and let the images wash over me, the way I used to as a player, watching the opponent I’d be playing. First, get film, watch enough so that you began to get a picture of who this guy is, and then get in the “Theatre of your mind” for a little going-deep scouting.
Two “Hindu” images quickly sprang to mind as I watched and rewound T.J.’s plays in my head. The searing intensity that pulsates off the kid while he plays reminded me a tad bit of HOFer Kevin Greene. There is an energy and excitement that he brings, along with a bang. He is decidedly an energy-bringer. Whether or not he eventually becomes a multiplier is too far down the road to say.
Though his speed-to-power rush isn’t up to Greene’s Tasmanian devil standards (few are, for that matter), it’s not too far away either for a guy who’s played defense less than two years.
Secondly, his movement patterns resonated with a former opponent I was very familiar with, have a great deal of respect for, and has great bloodlines. The great outside linebacker Clay Matthews, circa the Browns in the '80s. Uncanny shakes, bakes, and speed movements without slowing up. Makes for an interesting, though volatile, mix.
A check of my notes while I was deep-sixed in watching:
“A little maniacal Kevin Greene intensity with some Clay Matthews movement patterns.”
On the hunt he has an uncanny ability to create head and body movements, shakes if you will (which can get a big OT sitting on his heels, waiting to get run over) while maintaining speed. Pretty good stuff if you ask me.
“T.J. disengages and accelerates to the slaughter on pass rush. He’s not shy about bringing the crunch.”
Watt has a straight-line eye on the quarterback when he beats his man. He whips, locates, and then sprints to the sack. Obviously he’s going to have to learn the nuances of toning down the car wreck sacks and play nice.
When he pass rushes, Watt will work his rush with his hands forward of his body. He doesn’t head-butt to being held when he’s on the hunt. From the outside he’ll try to work an angle, trap an opponent’s hands by knocking them down and run a tight arc. Other times he will high speed uppercut/turnstile or even throw a little Justin Houston sweeping of the hands move on you. He’s not a one-trick pony by any means for such an inexperienced pass rusher.
An important notation is that he’s able to beat his opponent’s technique with his own technique. Something Jarvis Jones always struggled with.
“Doesn’t let the chip chunk him” and "Has a natural play to a man’s edge feel to him.”
T.J. is aware of backs on inside rushes who might be in max pro who will step up and try to drill him. T.J. will not give that man a deep chunk of him, but will angle his body in such a way as to avoid the biggest part of the hit.
When he works his pass rush on a twist stunt, there is a decided work-a-man’s edge rather than just go-down-the-middle to his rush, which is very smart.
That is not to say that he can’t go down the middle. I’ve just not seen the explosive “Put your forehead in a man’s chin and climb the body” bull rush. He may have it, I just haven’t seen it.
Though first impressions say he’s strong, T.J. is not Samson-strong in the mold of James Harrison. Working the edge of a man is normally something that takes a while to get. T.J. already has a good sense of that.
Though he's young to the defensive side of the ball (he doesn’t even have his Samurai sixth sense percolating yet, as I confirmed during the interview), his upside is big, wide-open spaces when the force is with him.
T.J. looks strong enough to hold the edge against the run, yet I’m thinking that’s something he’ll need work on when he gets his big-boy pads on. As I concentrated pretty heavily on watching his pass rush, I don't have a great feel for his run defense, other than he locks out decently, has great feet and a high motor.
Lastly, the injury bug. Three knee surgeries are troublesome to be sure, but I have great confidence in the Steelers medical staff and I’m sure they’ve done their due diligence. Cut blocks are evermore going the way of leisure suits and 8-track tapes anyhow, so it’s not like in the days of yore when flat-out butchery was in vogue.
Overall I couldn’t help being impressed with “Watt I saw” or “Watt I heard.”