'Visiting from another planet?' Steelers marvel at T.J. Watt's impact

PITTSBURGH -- In between defensive drills at practice a couple weeks ago, Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher T.J. Watt challenged teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick to a competition.

They would throw a football at the goal post with their non-dominant arm. Whoever hit the crossbar won.

They started lined up at the goal line, and Fitzpatrick hit the crossbar on his first throw. But when they backed up to the 10-yard-line, Watt nailed the bar, while Fitzpatrick's attempts missed.

Nothing about the competition between Fitzpatrick and Watt directly translates to the football field, but the moment is a window into the psyche of Watt, a frontrunner for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award along with the Rams' Aaron Donald and Dolphins' Xavien Howard.

Everything is a competition. Even in his down time, Watt, 26, finds an opportunity to challenge someone else to a head-to-head battle. It could be throwing the ball at the crossbar, or it could be playing table-top soccer in the locker room. Watt wants to win at everything.

"I think that translates to the field where the man in front of him, he's just trying to beat and break down every single rep," Fitzpatrick said. "Because of that, his competitive nature, he is who he is."

That, of course, is to be expected growing up in a house with two brothers -- Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Steelers fullback Derek Watt -- who pushed each other constantly. It's also what's helped him become the most important member of the Steelers' defense entering their wild-card playoff game against the Cleveland Browns (8:15 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC).

Coach Mike Tomlin has a different explanation for what makes Watt such a dynamic and explosive member of the Steelers' defense. It's the only one that makes sense.

"T.J. is visiting from another planet, to be quite honest with you," Tomlin said. "He has freakishly unique talent coupled with freakishly unique work habits and mindset, and it produces what you guys witness every week, which in my opinion, is Defensive Player of the Year quality."

Watt laughed at the description.

Watt's oldest brother J.J. agreed, tweeting it explained why T.J.'s Christmas presents arrived so late.

"It was something out of a wrestling promo, and my grandma even called me and said she really appreciated him saying those words," Watt said of Tomlin's alien description. "I knew she was really appreciative of it. J.J. is just a big, fat liar when it comes to social media. His present got there early if anything, but touché to him for using his platform for getting a lot of laughs and likes. I know that's important to him."

Watt's 2020 numbers aren't necessarily out-of-this world, but he led the NFL in several defensive categories: 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss -- both career highs. Watt is only the second Steeler to lead the NFL in sacks after Kevin Greene did it in 1994 with 14 sacks.

"It's real hard to lead the league in the categories that he does, and he does it consistently," Fitzpatrick said. "He did it throughout the whole year this year. He was leading at most of the point last year. His preparation is unmatched, unrivaled. He spends countless hours working on his body, his film. He's a competitor."

Watt was also named the team MVP again in 2020, becoming the first Steeler to win it in back-to-back seasons since James Harrison in 2007 and 2008.

"The biggest thing he does that helps himself is he studies the game and he understands the game," defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. "He talks to his brother (J.J.) a lot. They talk quite a bit in terms of what's going on in the league. He watches a lot of film. He is going to try and study his opponent as best he can and try to use what he knows in the game when the lights come on. He does a good job of doing that."

When the Steelers played the Browns in Week 6, Watt didn't record a sack, and he didn't play in the Week 17 rematch. Getting pressure on Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and bringing him down will be a big key Sunday, as will slowing running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Watt will be the guy leading his team into a divisional battle with higher than usual stakes.

"Before we can run out into the stadium, he's the guy who talks to us," Fitzpatrick said. "He's very vocal during that time, very energetic. ... He's a guy that does everything the right way. He's one of the first guys in the building, one of the last to leave. He's watching film all the time, constantly preparing his body and his mind. And guys follow, one because he's having success and he's doing it the right way. Guys like [rookie Alex] Highsmith just follow in his footsteps, and I see Highsmith doing the same exact thing that T.J.'s doing after practice and before practice. Just the way he prepares as well."

This is also the last game -- or games -- the Steelers likely will get Watt at a bargain price. His rookie deal still has another year after the team picked up his fifth-year option, but as a foundational piece of the defense and one of the best players in the league, Watt is in line for a massive extension -- one that could even reach as high as $100 million.

"I've always had supreme confidence in myself," Watt said after winning the team MVP. "I've always had confidence in the coaching staff here and the scheme and the players. When you're surrounded by such great talent, it's hard to kind of hold up your end.

"I just wanted to work as hard as I could to not let the guys down that are around me, the supporting cast. I don't know, I feel like I have a lot more to do still, and I feel like I have a lot more room to grow."