PITTSBURGH (AP) — T.J. Watt reads the stories from his rookie year in 2017 and can’t help but laugh a little. Sure, the Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker is more reserved than older brother JJ — the high-profile defensive end for the Houston Texans — but then again, who isn’t?
Still, Watt looks back at his words (or lack thereof) and admits his reticence was part of his master plan and not necessarily a distillation of his personality.
“I was very shy and didn’t want to say a lot at all,” Watt said on Tuesday. “I just wanted to work and soak up as much information as I possibly could and gain the trust of my teammates.”
Funny how reaching the Pro Bowl twice in your first three seasons and developing a reputation as one of the most relentless edge rushers in the NFL has a way of getting you to loosen up.
The player who spoke only in benign platitudes is slowly pulling back the layers. Check your TV for proof. Yes, that was Watt starring alongside brothers JJ and Derek and mom Connie in a series of Subway commercials. Yes, that was Watt playing co-host on the game show “Ultimate Tag.”
Watt says he’s just “dipping his toe in the water” and he’s quick to point out that he’s determined not to let his budding celebrity overshadow the importance of his day job.
“First and foremost, it will always be me being a football player,” Watt said. “When it comes to me doing those shows and the Subway commercials and things along those lines, obviously, I’ve seen J.J. (Watt) do that stuff for years, and it’s fun to put myself out of my own comfort zone and try new things.”
That goes for on the field as well as off it. Watt racked up a career-best 14 1/2 sacks in 2019, his No. 90 often a blur on its way to the quarterback. Still, he believes he remains a work in progress. He and fellow outside linebacker Bud Dupree spent the offseason and the early days of camp refining their hand placement, a crucial element of their intricate battles with opposing offensive linemen.
Here’s the thing though: Watt already excels in that department. His daily tangles with teammates Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner are often a series of 3-second clinics in which Watt slips past the massive tackles, each of whom have at least 100 pounds on him.
While Watt is quick to praise both for their development, he also offers an important caveat that hints at a self-confidence that’s has bubbled under the surface for years but has rarely let show publicly.
“I trust my abilities, and it doesn’t matter who they put out there,” Watt said.
Watt says it matter of factly, a reminder that he’s well aware of the line between confidence and arrogance. Unless of course it comes to trash-talking the other guys in the locker room. Then, the player Dupree called “a savage” comes roaring to life.
With the Steelers forced to hold training camp at Heinz Field rather than St. Vincent College because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve been forced to get creative when it comes to team bonding.
Defensive end Cam Heyward opted to start a “Spikeball” league. The game, a mixture of volleyball and handball, pits pairs of teammates against each other. Watt hooked up with defensive tackle Tyson Alualu and well, let’s just say things have gone well.
“We are just point-blank unstoppable,” Watt said with a laugh.
It’s a descriptor Watt hopes applies to the Steelers defense in 2020. Watt and Dupree helped set the tone for a group that led the NFL in sacks and takeaways and with all but one starter returning, the stakes are high. Really high.
Another performance such as the one he put together last season could put Watt in line for a massive payday when the team approaches him about a contract extension next summer.
Cleveland’s Myles Garrett and the Chargers’ Joey Bosa both received nine-figure contracts during the summer, and Watt has more sacks through his first three seasons (34 1/2) than both of them.
Yet Watt demures when pressed on what he might be looking to accomplish over the next five months.
“I’ll never publish my individual goals,” he said. “I just want to be able to be a game-wrecker. I want to be able to be somebody that the other team has to scheme around.”
It’s already happening in a way. Coach Mike Tomlin points out “Watt is a handful for one man on NFL playing surface,” which in some ways can make it difficult to evaluate Okorafor and Banner’s development. Most weeks, they won’t be facing someone on the other side of the line of scrimmage quite like Watt.
Now, the youngest member of the Watt family is the one with the brightest future, one he isn’t taking for granted. He spent most of his life trying to keep up with JJ and Derek. It taught him the discipline necessary to thrive. And that hasn’t changed, no matter how brightly the spotlight might shine.
“I always had the plan that I wanted to enter the NFL,” he said, “and I had the blueprint from both my brothers of just wanting to put my head down and work as hard as I possibly can.”
NOTES: WR Ryan Switzer (foot), RB Kerrith Whyte (groin) and CB Alex Myres (groin) left practice early on Tuesday. … C Maurkice Pouncey (excused absence) and QB Ben Roethlisberger (off day) returned to practice Tuesday. … The team was forced to move practice from Heinz Field to its indoor facility due to the threat of inclement weather. … The Steelers are off Wednesday.
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