In a year where Pittsburgh Steelers fans won’t (or shouldn’t) care much about individual awards, the team will have several players in contention for various awards.
There will be several All-Pros on the team as well as the potential Comeback Player of the Year. One award where they might have the frontrunner is Defensive Player of the Year. T.J. Watt came in third place for the award last year, but this year he has a real case to be the winner.
Our focus will be on Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt, and Myles Garrett because they are the top three favorites for DPOY in that order.
Betting markets have as a pretty strong favorite around 2:1 odds, with Watt closer to 4:1 and Garrett at 5:1. To get Steelers fans excited, it’s worth noting that Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are tied for fifth-best odds, but they are 16:1.
Stats don’t tell the whole story in the game of football, but they matter, especially when it comes to winning individual awards. And the stats point to Watt being the favorite for the award, despite what the betting odds are.
We’ll start with everyone’s favorite stat to observe defensive linemen performance, sacks. Garrett leads the league with 9.5 sacks, while Donald and Watt each have nine. It’s a small edge but advantage to Garrett.
Watt has a big lead in QB hits, another statistic that speaks to pass-rushing ability. He has hit opposing quarterbacks 28 times this year, compared to 17 for Donald and just 14 for Garrett. Pressures tell a similar story, as Watt has totaled 38, far ahead of Donald’s 26 and Garrett’s 22.
Finally, Watt has totaled 14 tackles for loss this year, already matching his 2019 total. Garrett and Donald have seven tackles for loss each. Based on these four statistics, Watt has to be the frontrunner.
Another edge to Watt is his versatility as a defender. The pass-rushing statistics favor him, as do tackles for loss and total tackles, suggesting he’s better than the competition against the run, too.
His performance against the pass even expands his statistical advantage. Watt has defended six passes this year (most of them batted balls at the line of scrimmage). Neither Garrett nor Donald have defended a pass. Watt has also recorded an interception, something neither Donald nor Garrett have done.
One area where Watt trails the competition is forced fumbles. Last year, Watt led the NFL with eight. This year, he hasn’t forced any fumbles.
Garrett leads the league with four forced fumbles so far, and Donald has three. Overall, if you count interceptions, forced fumbles, and fumbles recovered as total turnovers, Watt trails. He has just one (his interception), while Garrett has six and Donald has four. If Watt can record some strip-sacks in the second half of the season while maintaining his leads in the other categories, he could become the betting favorite for the award.
So if Watt is clearly having the best statistical season of the three, why is Donald still the favorite?
That’s where context comes in. Since Donald is an interior defensive lineman, he sees double teams at a much higher clip than Garrett and Watt. In general, it’s much harder for an interior defender to stuff the stat sheet than it is for an edge defender. That hasn’t stopped Donald in the past, though, and it hasn’t really stopped him this year either.
Donald’s ability to wreak havoc while taking on two or three blockers keeps him right at the top of the DPOY conversation every year.
Finally, someone’s DPOY favorite could depend on how that person values the talent surrounding these players. Watt is a perfect example, as he plays beside loads of defensive talent.
On the one hand, the argument could be made that playing around so many good players makes it easier for Watt to rack up stats. It’s a fair argument because teams can’t afford to spend too much attention on Watt, or they’ll be picked apart by Tuitt, Bud Dupree, or Heyward. That said, Watt does see a fair share of extra attention, though not to the degree that Donald does.
On the other hand, a counter-argument is that it’s even more impressive that on a team full of potential All-Pros, Watt still clearly stands out as the best player on the defense. To play beside a group of studs and lap them statistically speaks to Watt’s dominance on the field.
In the end, it would be a huge surprise if Watt falls out of the top three for DPOY. Will he win? Who knows? If the season ended today, though, he should win the award. He has been the best statistical defensive player this year by far. Further, he’s the head-and-shoulders best player on one of the few best defenses in the NFL.
If he can get more involved in turnovers down the stretch, look for Watt to run away with this award. At this point, he’s a lock to be a first-team All-Pro for the second straight season. And he very well could be adding a Defensive Player of the Year award to his resume.