T.J. Watt’s obsessive film study habits have helped him become an elite pass rusher

PITTSBURGH — After T.J. Watt bounced outside the left tackle, grabbed Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and swung him to the ground for a sack, he immediately jumped up and pointed to Mike Tomlin.

It was sort of an “I told you so” message to his coach.

It wasn’t the prettiest sack of Watt’s career, or even the most athletic or important for the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year, but it sure meant something to him. Nine minutes into a 7-7 game and Watt was celebrating more off this sack than he did one week prior when he set the franchise record — because it had little to do with freakish ability and was more about hard work.

Watt is known for his knack of getting to the quarterback and getting him on the ground by the 83 1/2 times he’s done it over his career.

Everybody is aware of that.

What does go unnoticed and isn’t talked about enough in outside circles is the work Watt puts in, in the film room before he even steps onto the field to get to the point where setting the NFL’s single-season sack record is well within reach.

Watt spends countless hours not only watching film but, as Tomlin pointed out, studying it relentlessly.

So when opportunities arise to put that to use, like when the Raiders ran a play-action stretch right at him Sunday night, he’s prepared enough to know it’s not what it seems.

“He kind of knew that play was coming, so that’s why he pointed at him like that. He knew it was coming,” outside linebacker Alex Highsmith said.

“He knew something with his film study to be able to get through and make that play,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “A lot of guys see that and come out and try to play the run.”

But through a combination of what happened in December and film study, Watt not only knew what was going to happen but, according to a couple of other “tells,” knew it was going to be a pass. Last year, Watt got burned playing the run on that play.

Watt assured Tomlin it was going to happen again, and he would be ready for it.

“You know, some people watch tape, some people study tape,” Tomlin said. “And there’s a difference. However you describe the spectrum, T.J. is on the extreme end of it from a preparedness standpoint. And that’s one of the reasons why you get the production that you get from him beyond his freakish talent. I could just tell by the dialogue that he and I have and how it has matured over the years that his process is being honed to a fine edge.”

Sunday was just one example of how Watt has elevated his game from being a good pass rusher to one of the best. He can’t even begin to put a number on how many hours a week he devotes to studying film. He’s so driven by it that he gets his wife, Dani, to join in while he’s watching the television copy at home.

“She will help me out,” Watt said. “When we watch TV copies we will sit there and listen together to see if we can pick up anything. It’s at least an hour at home after you have watched the film for hours here (at the facility). It is hard to balance life and football, but luckily my wife truly understands and appreciates the line of work that I am in.”

Yes, Watt watches the television copy to try to find any kinds of calls he can decipher and use to create an edge for himself.

“I look at everything. It’s all-encompassing,” Watt said. “I look at guards, the tackles, running back alignments, quarterback alignments, mannerisms. It’s everything. Trying to find ways to be productive is more than strolling up there and working hard and thinking everything is going to take care of itself. This is chess, not checkers. I need to continue to find ways to make an impact, even though teams are trying to minimize me as much as possible.”

Nobody has been able to come close to minimizing Watt this season. After an injury-plagued 2022 that saw him miss seven games, Watt already has more sacks (6) than he had all of last season (5.5).

Watt was named Defensive Player of the Month on Thursday after collecting six sacks, 11 tackles, 12 quarterback hits, two passes defensed, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a game-winning defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns.

According to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Watt is the first player to record six sacks and register a defensive touchdown in a team’s first three games of a season. He’s on pace to shatter his and Michael Strahan’s NFL record of 22.5 sacks in a single season with 36. His 83.5 is just outside the top 100 all time, and he has yet to turn 30.

But he’s not even thinking about 36 sacks. He’s thinking more about a playoff win, something that has eluded him so far.

“I have been in this game long enough to know things come in ebbs and flows,” Watt said. “You just have to stay hot when you are hot and seize that opportunity. I am not trying to be Superman or be out of character. I just study hard, play hard, and when plays come, make them.”

Studying isn’t new to the NFL. Players and teams dedicate a significant portion of the week to breaking down opponents. Watt takes it to a different level at which even his teammates are amazed. There is a room on the second floor of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex that Watt calls the “core defender room.”

When the special teams gather during the day, Watt sneaks into the room and goes over the tape. A lot of the time safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is with him, among others. It’s the same room Kenny Pickett sneaks into from time to time.

That is where Watt tries to find a tell with either the formation, the personnel grouping or even how the defender holds his hands and aligns his feet. It takes plenty of attention to detail, but he always comes up with something he can use in the game.

And more often than not, it works. A lot of his batted passes are because of film study.

“It is everything I look at,” Watt said. “Every team has a tell, and every player has a tell. It is just a matter of finding and exploiting what it is. As I have gotten older, I’ve gotten better searching what I am looking for. It is not so broad. I can focus on the little things to look for. It is usually quicker to find the longer I have been in the game. When I am all done, I will break it all down for you, but there is definitely stuff out there that helps slow down the game.”

Watt wasn’t about to dive deep into what he specifically looks for to give him the edge he needs. Opponents do counter, trying to throw Watt off, but that usually doesn’t work out very well.

“This past week guys tried a couple of different things than what was on film, but there is usually more than one tell,” Watt said. “There is more than one thing telling me a certain play is coming. There are factors that I can cross-reference of what the play was going to be.”

This week will be a little different for Watt. There aren’t many snaps he can go off from the Houston Texans’ Austin Deculus, who is expected to play left tackle Sunday but could see time on the right side — where Watt will be ready. The Texans have dealt with major injuries on the offensive line, and Deculus will be making his first career start after being a sixth-round pick last year.

Still, Watt will go through the process to see whether he can get an advantage over the inexperienced Deculus.

“(Watt) is probably the most impactful defensive player in the league right now,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “When you have one guy who can pressure and disrupt the quarterback, it just changes the entire scheme of things defensively.”

(Photo: Justin K. Aller / Getty Images)

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