Gerry Dulac: Why the Steelers might want a Watt in the backfield Sunday

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PITTSBURGH — With three brothers preparing to compete on the same NFL field for only the second time in nearly 100 years, the most intriguing question surrounding the reunion at Heinz Field is this: Which Watt will spend more time in the Steelers backfield on Sunday — J.J. or Derek?

The answer would appear to be simple. J.J. Watt, the NFL’s three-time defensive player of the year, has made a career disrupting plays behind the line of scrimmage with the Houston Texans.

He has had at least 16 1/2 sacks in four of his first nine years in Houston, including 20 1/2 in 2012 and 2014 — tied for second most in a season among active players (Justin Houston had 22 1/2 in 2014 with the Kansas City Chiefs).

He not only holds the league’s single-season record for tackles for loss (39 in 2012), he holds the second- (29 in 2014) and third-place (29 in 2015) spots on the list as well. J.J. Watt also leads all active players with 160 career tackles for loss.

So, in 114 career games, the oldest of the three Watt brothers has 98 sacks, 270 quarterback hits and 160 tackles for loss. That means he averages 3.8 plays per game in which he’s in an opposing backfield, either making a negative play or hitting a quarterback.

How will that impact the Steelers? Well, after two games, they have allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked three times, hit on eight other occasions and sustained eight tackles for loss in the run game. That’s an average of 9.5 plays per game with someone in their backfield creating negative yards or hitting Roethlisberger. And that means there’s a 40% chance Watt will be involved in one of those plays.

Those chances might increase if Watt decides to spend a lot of his time lining against right tackle Chuks Okorafor, who is making only his fifth NFL start at the position.

“He’s capable of rushing from anywhere on the field, over your center, on the edge, and he does it routinely in the same game, in the same drives,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s a big-time ball disrupter who’s extremely mobile.”

But no matter how disruptive Watt might be at Heinz Field, he still will not spend more time in the Steelers’ backfield than his brother, Derek, the team’s new fullback. Or so the Steelers would hope.

Not surprisingly, Derek Watt has been on the field for more special-teams plays (40) than plays from the line of scrimmage (14) after two games. After all, that’s why he was signed as an unrestricted free agent. But his number of plays from scrimmage should increase as he gets more acclimated to the offense. And it might increase against the Texans.

They were gouged for 138 yards by rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire in their season-opening loss in Kansas City. And the Baltimore Ravens rushed for 230 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry in the Texans’ 33-18 loss in Houston.

Keep in mind, too, the Steelers used former fullback Roosevelt Nix for a combined 34 plays from scrimmage in back-to-back games against the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts last season — some measure of evidence they do, despite popular misconception, value a fullback.

“I think as we’re still finding our footing with this group minus the offseason, I really believe you will see more of Derek Watt,” said offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. “I think he’s warranted it. Derek is more than capable of playing in a lot of different ways.”

Even though the Steelers are the only team in the league to have a 100-yard rusher in each of the first two games — and despite Tomlin’s assertion he is “generally pleased with the trajectory” of the run game — they need to be able to set a better tone with the run to start the game.

So far, the Steelers haven’t been able to do that. In two games, they have rushed for a combined 78 yards on 25 carries before halftime, an average of 3.1 yards per game. The longest run has been 11 yards — done twice, once by Roethlisberger. They sputter and cough like a cold engine, needing ample time for the engine to kick in.

After halftime has been a different story. The Steelers have rushed for 172 yards on 27 attempts, an average of 6.4 yards per carry, though 89 of those yards have come on runs of 30 (Benny Snell) and 59 yards (James Conner). Bill Cowher always believed in the approach that you “throw early to run late,” especially when Roethlisberger is the quarterback. But it doesn’t mean the Steelers can’t flip the script occasionally and run early to throw even better later.

Maybe the answer is using a fullback to help Conner get started quicker. Maybe the answer is getting Derek Watt in the backfield before his brother does.


Do not read too much into the fact that only one wide receiver in the league has been targeted more than Diontae Johnson … and that’s the player who would have been at Heinz Field on Sunday if Bill O’Brien hadn’t foolishly traded him to Arizona.

Johnson has been targeted 23 times, two fewer than Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins but nine more than teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster. This is being viewed by some as though Johnson, not Smith-Schuster, has become more of a favorite target for Roethlisberger.

And that’s not the case.

For starters, opposing teams have and will tilt their coverage to Smith-Schuster, trying to limit the connection he has with Roethlisberger. Also, Smith-Schuster has caught 13 of the 14 passes he has been thrown, a catch rate of 92.8% that is second best among all wide receivers in the league with eight or more catches after two games.

Conversely, Johnson’s has caught 14 of his 23 targets, a catch rate of 60.8%. Johnson has become a reliable target in just his second NFL season because of his precise route-running and effortless ability to catch the ball.

But in a must-convert situation, Roethlisberger will continue to look to the receiver who had 111 catches and 1,426 receiving yards in 2018, unless the coverage dictates otherwise.


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