The Pittsburgh Steelers have always been known for their defense. Of course, we are all familiar with the Steel Curtain of the 1970’s and the historic defenses of 2005 and 2008, but with relatively lackluster defensive units the past several seasons, this is likely to change in 2022. After possessing one of the worst run defenses in 2021, albeit due to multiple injuries to key components, the Steelers were active in addressing that heading into training camp later in the summer. This includes the free agency acquisitions of Myles Jack and Larry Ogunjobi in addition to the 2022 third-round selection of DeMarvin Leal. But with all of this, Pro Football Focus (PFF) doesn’t think that’s enough to earn one of the best defensive players in football the sack-leader crown for 2022.
According to PFF, Steelers’ TJ Watt is expected to come in second to Myles Garrett on the sack list in 2022.
Per PFF’s predictive analytics, Garrett is projected to post over 16 sacks in the 2022 season, while Watt falls below 15. Sure, by saying that Watt should be above Garrett may sound biased, the actual numbers say otherwise. Let’s dive in.
Seeing as though PFF is using the majority of the 2021 stat lines of Garrett and Watt to forecast their sack numbers for 2022, let’s explore their 2021 statistics, first with Garrett. Garrett played in all 17 regular season games in 2021. In those games, he posted 33 solo tackles with 16 sacks with a forced fumble. On the other hand, Watt played in 15 regular season games (that is two less than Garrett). In those 15 games, Watt tied the NFL single-season sack record of 22.5 sacks with 48 solo tackles and 5 forced fumbles. Looking at those numbers, I don’t see how Watt sees such a significant drop off in production in 2022. At this point you may be wondering, “sure, but where will Watt land in 2022?”
Watt is poised to set the NFL sack record in 2022
Heading into the 2022 season, Watt is in the best position of his entire career to tally a strong sack number. Following the surprising retirement of Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers know Watt needs help up front in tandem with Cameron Heyward. They addressed this effectively. With the re-signing of Montravius Adams inside paired with Ogunjobi and Leal on the outside opposite of Heyward, Watt is going to see plenty of opportunities to get to the quarterback. Looking back to earlier in his career, Watt had Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, and Bud Dupree along the line to help him get more one-on-one opportunities. In 2022, he has Alex Highsmith coming for his own sack record with deeper talent along the line. Watt was close to setting the NFL sack record in 2021, and all signs are pointing him to break that 23-sacks number in 2022. Ironically enough, PFF agrees with me, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Going back to Garrett’s artificially inflated projections, reality comes into play. That reality being Garrett is essentially the Cleveland Browns defensive line. The Browns lost a lot of firepower after the 2021 season along the defensive front and Garrett is going to be tasked with shouldering a lot of that production. With that being said, Garrett is going to get a lot of the attention from opposing offensive lines and he’ll be accounted for respectfully. In terms of Watt, with all the names we talked about earlier, there are a lot of pieces to account for along the Steelers’ defensive line versus the Browns. Garrett simply is not going to have the opportunities to hang with Watt in the sack race.
As I alluded to earlier, PFF looks to agree with me in saying Watt is poised for another record year in 2022. Following the graphic we saw above, PFF released their list of top five offensive and defensive duos going into the 2022 season. On this list, they mentioned Watt and Heyward as one of the deadliest duos in football. PFF explained:
“Watt has been a locomotive off the edge the past few years, further cementing himself as a premier defensive player. However, Watt and Heyward’s dominance along Pittsburgh’s defensive front goes slightly unnoticed.” They continued in saying, “Watt finished with a top-five 2021 WAR mark for edge rushers, while Heyward trailed only Aaron Donald for the best interior defensive lineman WAR figure. The two feed off one another en route to tons of quarterback pressure — including a combined 34 sacks, 24 hits and 70 hurries in 2021.”
Speaking of “slightly unnoticed,” PFF could fall into that category. But with that said, they proved my point of how Heyward is going to help Watt set the NFL sack record. Although there are other key pieces along the defensive front in Pittsburgh, Heyward and Watt are going to feed off each other for them to get into the backfield. In addition, with the additions I mentioned earlier, both Watt and Heyward are in the best positions of their respective contracts to be a force on defense. But in addition to just the NFL single-sack record, Watt is in a favorable spot to grab the Steelers’ franchise sack record as well; in the least number of games needed to do so.
The Steelers have great defensive players peppered all throughout their history. This includes the likes of Hall of Famers Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, LC Greenwood, and Kevin Greene. Heading into the 2022 season, James Harrison currently sits atop the Steelers’ all-time franchise sack list with 80.5 sacks. Looking at Watt, he’s sitting at 72. Therefore, Watt only needs a mere 9 sacks in 2022 to hold the Steelers’ franchise sack record. In addition, Heyward is sitting at 68 sacks, which lands him in fourth (right behind Watt) on the Steelers’ all-time sack list. Harrison needed 177 games to reach that 80.5 mark, whereas Watt has only played 77 games to get to that 72 number. Going back to the Browns, Garrett only sits at 58.5 sacks in a span of 68 games. Needless to say, he has a lot of work to do to get up to Watt’s level. No matter how you slice it, what Watt has been able to do is absolutely unheard of in football.
We went through a lot of names and numbers. But if there is any easy way to conclude, it is to simply say that Watt is poised and ready to re-write the NFL and Steelers’ franchise record books, and Heyward is not far behind. Both Watt and Heyward are going to be dominant forces along the Steelers’ defensive front and are going to be in the conversations of post-season accolades at the end of the season. But looking at Garrett, he’ll fall short again and will just be a spectator to the Watt/Heyward show in 2022.
How many sacks do you think Watt and Heyward will tally in 2022? Do you think they’ll beat out Garrett? Let us know in the comments below!