Rookie T.J. Watt’s emergence signals changing of the guard
LATROBE, Pa. (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick T.J. Watt will take all the preseason snaps he can get at right outside linebacker.
And perhaps most of them in the regular season too, a fact the man his is in the process of replacing isn’t fighting.
James Harrison is the Steelers’ all-time sacks leader, including a team-high five last season at the not-so tender age of 38.
The now-39-year-old Harrison doesn’t care who has the starting spot he’s held for the better part of a decade as long as it results in another Lombardi Trophy for the Steelers.
“I’m not worried about it,” Harrison said Wednesday. “Whatever they want me to do. I’m 39 years old and still playing football.”
Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, dressed for one padded practice during training camp.
Other than that, he’s been working out on his own, sporting a gray sweatsuit in the sun while teammates practice on an adjacent field.
Watt, the 30th overall pick in 2017, is the younger brother of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt — a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The younger Watt flourished as the starting right outside linebacker during the Steelers first preseason game against the New York Giants, earning two sacks in the first four snaps.
He wouldn’t have a problem being in the same role when the regular season begins on Sept. 10 in Cleveland.
“I’ve always said from the beginning, I’m never going to turn down reps,” Watt said. “If that comes with more reps, then I’m all for it. I’m just out here trying to show that I’m consistent as possible, I can make plays and I can be trusted.”
Watt made his impact early against the Giants. He beat his man on third down and took down the Giants’ Josh Johnson for his first sack. On the next defensive snap, Watt didn’t fall for a run fake and sacked Johnson for the second time in as many plays.
“I was just playing football and trying to make a play,” Watt said. “The second one was a read option, so I tried to see if he would keep it or dump it off. At that point, it’s just instincts taking over.”
Coach Mike Tomlin has called Watt a “one-rep learner,” or a quick study, despite playing the position for just two seasons at Wisconsin.
Watt, who has two older brothers in the NFL, has also been commended for his high-level of conditioning, allowing the rookie to absorb significant snaps on defense and special teams deep into the fourth quarter against the Giants.
“I was ready for it,” Watt said. “I knew going into the game that we were pretty light at outside linebacker, and that I was also expected to play some special teams, which I’m perfectly OK with.
“That’s why I came into this camp as conditioned as possible.”
Tomlin has sought to preserve the veteran Harrison in the past.
Harrison, who has a franchise-best 79½ sacks, didn’t have a sack through the first seven games of the 2016 season while rotating with former first-round pick Jarvis Jones.
But Harrison took over the starting job and came on down the stretch, opposite 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree. Harrison, who played in 15 games and made seven starts and picked up 2½ sacks in three playoff games.
Harrison said Wednesday he would do whatever the Steelers asked of him this season. Watt just wants to play.
“To be honest with you, I’m just coming out here, trying to do everything I can each and every single day to show these coaches what I can do,” Watt said. “I’m trying to be the best player I can be.”
NOTES: Steelers rookie second-round pick WR JuJu Smith-Schuster left Wednesday’s practice with a lower-body injury. A cart was called, but Smith-Schuster limped off the field and later to the locker room under his own power. ... WR Sammie Coates (knee) was activated from the physically unable to perform list and practiced for the first time Wednesday.