Steelers’ T.J. Watt focused on football, not contract status

Pittsburgh Steelers

PITTSBURGH (AP)Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt is entering the final year of his contract. The two-time All-Pro said he never gave any thought to holding out in hopes of reaching a long-term deal.

”I love this team, I love all of the coaches and this staff here, and the players,” Watt said. ”I am excited for this season and that’s why I’m here.”

Watt has remained mum on the status of his negotiations. Team officials have previously communicated interest in signing Watt, but per a longstanding team policy, the Steelers don’t negotiate contracts once the regular season begins.

Watt hasn’t expressed concern. Instead, he’s focused on the first week of training camp workouts at the team facility in Pittsburgh.

”I love Pittsburgh,” Watt said. ”I would love to be here. All those decisions aren’t mine to be made. I am just here right now and doing my best each and every day.”

Watt led the league with 15 sacks last season, but he finished second to Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Watt said he isn’t using his runner-up finish to Donald as additional motivation heading into this season. That’s in the past as far as he’s concerned.

”It doesn’t matter,” Watt said. ”Winning the Super Bowl is all that really matters in the grand scheme of things. I’m coming out here, I love football and I am trying to get better each and every day. There are so many aspects of my game that need work. Learning and improving my game is what I’m most excited about this season.”

Watt was the third player since 2006 – joining Donald and older brother J.J. Watt – to make at least 15 sacks, 23 tackles for loss and 40 quarterback hits in a season, all marks which led the league. Watt joined Pro Football Hall of Famers Reggie White and Derrick Thomas as the only players to get at least 13 sacks in three of his first four seasons since 1982, when the individual sack became an official NFL statistic.

Watt, entering his fifth NFL season, is one of the longest-tenured members of the Steelers defense. He was made a defensive captain for the first time in 2020, and the first defensive player to be chosen team MVP in back-to-back years since James Harrison.

Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler has watched Watt evolve into one of the leaders.

”He’s a good player,” Butler said. ”He just doesn’t talk about it, he does it on the field. So, if he’s capable of doing it on the field, he’ll get a lot more respect from his teammates. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s a confident guy in terms of what he’s doing.”

Watt teamed with Bud Dupree to form one of the top pass-rushing tandems in 2020 as the Steelers led the league in sacks for the fourth consecutive season. Dupree tore his ACL midway through the season and then signed with Tennessee in free agency, leaving a void opposite Watt on the defense.

Rookie Alex Highsmith filled in following Dupree’s injury, making five starts, while getting two sacks and an interception. The Steelers also added depth by signing nine-year veteran Melvin Ingram prior to the start of training camp. Ingram, a three-time Pro Bowler, has 49 career sacks and is expected to rotate into the mix, helping to spell Watt, who played 83% of the team’s defensive snaps last season.

”You always want to have three guys that can play,” Butler said. ”We did last year. We think we’ve got three now that are going to be capable of playing for us, so we can rest each other.”

Watt welcomes depth in the Steelers’ rotation at outside linebacker. He’s also comfortable with his current status.

”There’s so much meat left on the bone, knowing there’s a lot of reps and situations that I wish I could’ve gotten back and performed better,” he said. ”I’m just trying to put the work in and hope it pays off.”

More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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