Since his rookie season, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker TJ Watt, has established himself as one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. In the last two seasons, Watt has produced an incredible 29.5 sacks, 108 total tackles, with 37 tackles for loss. It just so happens that in both seasons, the Defensive Player Of The Year Award has eluded him.
This past season, Watt led all defensive players in sacks, tackles for loss, and quarterback hits. Yet, he has passed over for the award, to Los Angeles Rams interior defensive lineman, Aaron Donald.
For this occasion, we are going to break down their production in the first half and the second half of the season, to possibly gain a better understanding of the decision that was made to give this year's award to Donald.
First Half Production
Aaron Donald: 9 sacks | 7 tackles for loss |18 QB hits | 0 passes defended
TJ Watt: 7 sacks | 9 tackles for loss | 24 QB hits | 6 passes defended
When viewing their productivity from a sack perspective, Donald has a slight edge, based on his performance in week five, when he produced 4 sacks. Both players had two games where they registered zero sacks; however in Watt's case, he contributed in other areas such as tackles for loss and passes defended. The one argument that for Donald, is the fact that he was often subjected to double teams, and did not have a complementary pass rusher at the interior, to help alleviate this pressure. Watt on the other hand, had a fantastic compliment in Bud Dupree, which created protection issues for opposing offenses. Yet, when it comes to versatility, Watt proved to be much superior, as he accounted to six passes defended during that time, and an interception in week one against the New York Giants. By this point of the season, Watt was near the top of the league in sacks, led in quarterback hits, and in passes defended among pass rushers.
Second Half Production (Including Playoffs)
Aaron Donald: 6.5 sacks | 9 tackles for loss | 16 QB hits | 1 pass defended
TJ Watt: 8 sacks | 12 tackles for loss | QB hits | 2 passes defended
Despite losing Dupree to a season-ending knee injuries against the Baltimore Ravens, Watt's production stayed consistent throughout the second half, while facing more double teams. In their contest against the Baltimore Colts, which helped them clinch the AFC North title, Watt came up big, as he registered two sacks, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble. With this noted, the factor that may have likely affected him was his performance in the playoffs.
In their upset loss to the Cleveland Browns at home, Watt registered no sacks, a tackle for loss, and a pass deflection. In Donald's case, he was stellar in his playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, as he registered two sacks, two tackles for loss, and three quarterback hits. To accentuate his performance, Donald had sustained a torn rib cartilage, yet managed to play in the Divisional round against the Green Bay Packers, even though he did not produce any splash plays. One must consider the optics in his discourse. The fact that he was able to play with an injury of this nature, only strengthen his case for this award.
Watt, from a statistical standpoint, was far more superior than Donald. Yet, if voters did take into account their performance in the playoff, this may have been the factor that led to Watt being denied this award for a second straight year. What can be said is this, his ability to produce splash plays on a consistent basis, it is inevitable that not only will he be in contention for this award each season, he is likely to win it several times before the end of his career.