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A few sacks shy of 100, Steelers' T.J. Watt 'living in the moment' as he inches closer to 30 years old

Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — T.J. Watt is entering a milestone season.

He's 3 1/2 sacks shy of 100, a number only 42 players in the history of the NFL have reached. In the next two seasons, he has a chance to break into the top 20 sackers of all-time.

It's rarified air, in the company of Hall of Famers such as Lawrence Taylor, Rickey Jackson and Derrick Thomas. Watt will someday join them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he's not fixated on his place in league history. As he enters his eighth season, there is only one number that matters — zero.

That's the number of playoff victories the Pittsburgh Steelers have since Watt joined the team as a first-round draft pick out of the University of Wisconsin in 2017.

"It's about no playoff wins, honestly," Watt said. "I just try to do anything I possibly can. Year in and year out, there is so much turnover in this locker room. I just try to help out as much as possible and learn as much as possible from guys who have come from other organizations who have done it and won championships. I'm trying to do whatever is possible to win."

Isn't that odd to hear coming from a veteran Steelers player? The only players on the Steelers with Super Bowl rings have been signed in free agency in recent years such as Elandon Roberts, Isaac Seumalo and Van Jefferson, among others.

Watt might seem forever young given his consistency from year to year, but time is running out for him to earn that elusive playoff win. He's coming up on another milestone. He turns 30 in October.

"I feel great right now, so I just live in the moment," Watt said. "I don't know if I want to play forever, but who knows? It's too hard to say. J.J. always said he didn't want to play super long, and then things happened and he ended up playing longer. I won't know until that moment comes."

Watt's brother, J.J., played until he was 33 years old. He had 12 1/2 sacks in his final season with the Arizona Cardinals in 2022.

T.J. isn't showing any signs of slowing down as he approaches 30. One year after a pectoral injury kept him out for half of the season, he returned to form in 2023 with 19 sacks and earned his fourth first-team All-Pro honor.

As he gets older, Watt is adapting his workout regimen in an effort to get the most out of his aging body.

 

"Just being smarter," he said. "I'm not going crazy in the weight room anymore. I'm not trying to set personal records as far as max reps or max weight. It's all about maintaining and trying to stay healthy. That's first and foremost. The most important thing is staying healthy, getting enough sleep."

The Steelers will have a plan in place to keep Watt fresh, too. Many veterans at or near 30 get multiple days off during training camp and one day off from practice during the season.

"We'll make sure we take care of T.J. because we know how valuable he is," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. " ... When I first got here, Cam [Heyward] was under 30, but it was the same thing. Once he got a little bit older, we kind of pulled him back because he would take every rep and he loved it. But sometimes you just got to try to help them govern themselves so that we have them when we get into November and December and we're playing some really meaningful games."

The Steelers have already seen the benefit of this. In 2021, Watt did not practice at all during training camp as he waited to get a new contract from the Steelers. Watt tied the NFL sack record that season and won NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"I think there is something to fresh legs in general," said outside linebackers coach Denzel Martin, who has coached Watt since his rookie season. "Whenever they can get some rest right before the season, the fresh legs aspect is never a negative, if you ask me.

"It's a constant conversation between me, him and Mike [Tomlin]. He's seen so many reps that a lot of this stuff is not going to change for him. Mental reps for him are just as good as physical reps. Just staying off his legs sometimes is what's better."

This time next year, the Steelers could be negotiating another contract with Watt. He has two more years remaining on the four-year, $112 million deal he signed in 2021.

Some of the game's greatest pass rushers played into their mid- to late 30s. Bruce Smith, who holds the NFL record with 200 sacks, played in the NFL for 19 seasons and retired when he was 40. Reggie White retired at 39, and Kevin Greene at 37.

Martin, for one, believes Watt has the drive to play a lot longer.

"That guy, I don't ever see him stopping," Martin said. "His love for football would have to die, and I don't see it dying."


(c)2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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