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Watt staying focused on the task at hand

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrate sacking Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning during the second half of an NFL football game in Cincinnati, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. The Steelers won 16-10.(AP Photo/Jeffrey Dean)

PITTSBURGH — The momentary bliss-fueled blackouts that used to consume T.J. Watt after every big play still come. Just not as frequently as they used to.

It’s not for lack of opportunity. If anything, it’s the opposite.

Games come. Games go. And in seemingly every single one of them the Pittsburgh Steelers all-everything outside linebacker makes a play — be it a sack, an interception, a well-timed pressure, a pass deflection — that summons something from deep within Watt’s id and briefly turns him into a snarling, preening “dog,” as former teammate Bud Dupree once put it.

Ask Watt why those giddy moments don’t pop up as frequently as they used to and a player seemingly preprogrammed to deflect attention to others comes as close as he may ever get to a humble brag.

“Because I’ve done it,” Watt said Friday before quickly catching himself. “I don’t want to say like …”

And then the NFL sack leader switched tactics in mid-thought, a verbal two-step akin to how he sets up opposing offensive tackles each week.

“I’ve just been in the game for so long that it’s more of like I’m just able to process it more and it’s not a euphoric-type feeling,” Watt continued. “It is still obviously the best feeling, but I’m able to be more present in the moment (now).”

The Steelers (7-4) have needed him to be.

While the seemingly endless hand-wringing surrounding (now former) offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s tumultuous tenure consumed headlines and, on some level, the locker room during the opening three months, Watt’s steadying presence and electric play kept Pittsburgh afloat.

He and running mate Alex Highsmith almost single-handedly beat Cleveland in Week 2. They teamed up for the game-clinching fumble against Baltimore in Week 5. Watt picked up two sacks in a win over Tennessee in early November, including one on Titans rookie quarterback Will Levis despite losing his helmet immediately after the snap.

Watt is near the pace he set in 2021 when he tied an NFL record with 22 1/2 sacks on his way to his first Defensive Player of the Year award. Not that he wants to talk about it. Trying to prod him into talking about himself is almost as difficult as trying to block him. So maybe it’s best to let others — like older brother J.J. Watt — serve as his hype men.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin called Watt “the best defensive player on the planet” on Tuesday. Pittsburgh safety Minkah Fitzpatrick — himself a three-time All-Pro — laughed when asked if he took Tomlin’s praise of Watt personally.

Mostly because, well, Fitzpatrick thinks Tomlin is right.

“T.J.’s a guy that provides splash all the time, he’s a game-wrecker,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s an unstoppable force.”

A force that former teammate James Conner will see across the line of scrimmage for the first time in his career on Sunday when Arizona (2-10) visits Pittsburgh. Conner and Watt came into the league together in 2017 when the Steelers drafted them two rounds apart.

Their four seasons taught Conner one very valuable lesson on how to deal with a player who is on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

“Getting past TJ? Run fast,” Conner said. “TJ is a machine. So the (offensive) line’s got to take care of him. But he’s going to make plays.”

And not just in the backfield. Watt has become adept in coverage. His six passes defensed are two off his career high with a half-dozen games remaining. When the Steelers lost inside linebacker Cole Holcomb against Tennessee last month, Watt lined up in the middle of the field on a handful of snaps and figured it out on the fly.

“It’s not like he’s one-dimensional,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “He is something else. People plan for that every week, but he still shows up every week in that stat sheet, and that’s amazing.”

While Watt does spend time outside the season to take advantage of his notoriety — in recent years it’s been hard to miss him and his brothers J.J. and Derek doing everything from hawking subs and taco sauce to hosting a game show — between the start of training camp and the middle of winter, Watt is all business.

He’s rarely in the locker room, not because he thinks he’s above it but because he feels his time is better spent elsewhere, be it the film room, the weight room or the trainer’s room. Rookie outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who followed in Watt’s footsteps at Wisconsin, has tried to attach himself to Watt whenever possible.

One problem: Watt is, perhaps not surprisingly, pretty elusive.

Highlight sessions during their early week meetings are met with a mixture of wonder at Watt’s uncanny ability to change the arc of a game — and, as a result, a season — and a pang of “yep, I’ve been there man” from the Steeler offensive linemen who can only shake their head while Watt races around (or occasionally through) their brethren in opposing uniforms.

“You’ve really got to study him and understand his game and really get in his head to be able to at least have a chance,” Pittsburgh rookie right tackle Broderick Jones said. “Because if you’re not able to get in his head and make him think, it’s going to be a bad day for you.”

The bad days have been going on for years for anyone tasked with trying to handle one of two players in NFL history with at least 13 sacks in five of their first seven seasons. The other is Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White.

It’s elite company. Watt, however, isn’t spending any time checking out his resume. He still hasn’t won a playoff game in his career, let alone a Super Bowl ring. That is what drives him,

“There’s so many more pressing things to focus on than who’s the best, all that stuff,” he said. “I just want to continue to be the best player I can be for myself and for this team.”

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