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Requesting a Recount: Was T.J. Watt Snubbed in the Defensive Player of the Year Voting?


Only Aaron Donald had pass-rush numbers that rivaled Watt. Donald took home the award, which didn’t sit well with Watt’s brother J.J. Is he right to be angry? We break it down. 

By: Chris Myson

Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams came away with his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award last weekend, and the results prompted a furious response from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt’s elder brother J.J.

He posted on Twitter: “Aaron Donald is an absolutely incredible player. I love watching him play & he’s headed to the Hall of Fame without question.

“This has nothing to do with AD personally. This is me saying what my brother won’t. TJ played 1 less game and STILL led the NFL in every major category.”

Watt has looked like a steal for the Steelers after they selected him 30th overall in the 2017 draft, and a deep dive into the numbers suggests he and his sibling have every right to be annoyed.


Donald is the only player on a defensive line who rivals some of Watt’s magnificent numbers from 2020.

Watt finished the year with 15.0 sacks, leading the league ahead of the great Donald and emerging New Orleans Saints pass rusher Trey Hendrickson, who both had 13.5.

While pass rushers are often judged purely on sacks, total pressures provide a greater illustration of how often Watt and his peers are impacting the game.

T.J. Watt led the league with 15.0 sacks in 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Sacks can fluctuate based on small sample sizes, unblocked rushes, the protection deployed by the offense or how quickly the opposing QB is able to get rid of the ball. However, total pressures encompass all QB sacks, hurries, hits and knockdowns.

Watt registered a magnificent 96 from his 15 games, a total only bettered by interior rusher Donald, who racked up 109 from a full 16-game slate.

The Steelers star was also a disruptor in the run game, with his 23 tackles for loss by far the NFL’s best ahead of Roquan Smith (18), Joey Bosa, Devin White and Haason Reddick (all 15).

The Steelers blitzed on 40.3% of opposing QB dropbacks this season – third most in the NFL – and generated pressure on 35.3% of total snaps – comfortably the league’s best. They also ranked No. 1 in allowing just 1,382 yards after catch in the passing game.

Watt followed up his fine 2019 season with a flying start to 2020, finished with a season-high 2.5 sacks against the Denver Broncos in Week 2. His five hits on Lamar Jackson in Week 8 helped to secure a 28-24 road win at Baltimore that put the Steelers in control of the division.

And while the Steelers slowed up towards the end of the regular season, Watt did not as six of his 15 sacks came in the last five weeks. He had four hits and a forced fumble even as the Steelers were beaten for the first time by the Washington Football Team in Week 12.


Watt is in elite company over the first four years of his career and has increased his sack tallies from seven as a rookie to 13.5, 14 and then 15.

Since sacks were first tracked for individual players in 1982, the 49.5 registered by Watt is the sixth-best total among players in their first four seasons.

Over the past three seasons, T.J. Watt is second only to Aaron Donald in sacks (42.5) and TFL (49), while ranking third in the NFL with 255 total pressures. (AP Photo/Justin Berl)

His tally is the highest of any player drafted since his brother J.J., Denver Broncos standout Von Miller and veteran rusher Justin Houston entered the NFL in a loaded 2011 draft.

J.J. had 57 sacks in his first four seasons when he burst onto the scene, while Miller and Houston fared similarly to T.J. with 49 and 48.5 respectively.

No other player drafted since DeMarcus Ware in 2005 has racked up comparable numbers, highlighting how Watt has separated himself even from perennial Pro Bowlers.

Over his most recent three-year span, which does not cover his rookie season, Watt’s consistency has been remarkable. He is second only to Donald in sacks (42.5) and TFL (49), while ranking third in the NFL with 255 total pressures.

Watt, who recently dismissed rumors he was frustrated over his contract and had skipped his exit interview after the team’s season fell apart down the stretch, is scheduled to play 2021 on his fifth-year option. But his numbers surely suggest a lucrative extension could be coming his way.

Finding a successor for Ben Roethlisberger at QB is an undoubted priority for the Steelers, but of equal importance is locking down Watt as the cornerstone of their defense for years to come.


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