Steelers’ TJ Watt Named Pro Football Writers of America’s NFL Defensive Player of Year

Though it remains to be seen if he will end up with the most recognized annual NFL-wide defensive honor, TJ Watt has been named an NFL defensive player of the year for the first time in his career.

Watt was voted as the league’s best defensive player for the 2021 season by the Pro Football Writers of America, an organization of journalists who regularly cover the NFL and its teams.

Watt had 22½ sacks this past season, tying an NFL record that had stood for two decades. He accumulated those quarterback takedowns despite missing all of two games and more than half of three others because of injury. Watt added a league-high in tackles for loss (21) and QB hits (39), as well as five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and seven passes defended.

“The things this year that we’ve seen him do, even with the record, that type of stuff doesn’t matter to him,” Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton said last week of Watt. “He just wants to go out there and wreck whoever is in front of him and win football games. When you have a guy with a mindset like that who wears it all for his brothers, that’s special.”

Watt won’t find out if he wins the most widely-known NFL defensive player of the year award until Feb. 10. Watt is considered a favorite for the Associated Press’ DPOY, which will be announced along with more than a dozen other seasonal awards at the televised “NFL Honors” ceremony.

Watt has been a finalist for the AP award each of the past two seasons, coming up just short to New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (2019) and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (2020).

“I think if he doesn’t win it this year,” teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick said with a smile, “it’s crazy. It’s rigged for sure, if he doesn’t win.”

The PFWA pick often foreshadows the AP vote, but not all the time. It has the past three seasons — Donald, the former Penn Hills and Pitt star, took both in 2018 — but in 2017 the PFWA chose the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Calais Campbell while the AP opted for Donald.


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Discrepancies also existed in 2013, 2010 and 1993. Interestingly, the 2010 and 1993 split votes both involved Steelers. Cornerback Rod Woodson was the AP DPOY in 1993, when the PFWA went with Buffalo Bills star Bruce Smith. Seventeen years later, the PFWA voted Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews its top defensive player while the AP picked Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.

The PFWA has handed out its award since 1992, though for the first 21 years it was in partnership with Pro Football Weekly. PFW had favored naming award winners dating to 1969.

The AP honor dates to 1971 and is considered the award of historical record.

Watt’s brother, JJ, claimed the PFWA award twice and three times won the AP honor. Watt is the first Steelers player to be named defensive player of the year by the PFWA since linebacker James Harrison in 2008.

Harrison set the Steelers’ season sack record that year with 16 — a mark that stood until Watt blew past in just his 12th game played of 2021. Watt had an NFL-best 15 sacks in 2020, becoming the third player to lead the league in that category in consecutive seasons since the sack became official in 1982.

Watt earlier this month was named the 2021 Steelers’ most valuable player. When voting conducted by teammates was announced, coach Mike Tomlin called Watt’s contributions to the team “immeasurable.”

“It’s incredible watching the best defensive player in football go about his business day to day,” said Steelers rookie defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk, whose college career at Wisconsin also overlapped with Watt’s by one year. “Just seeing what he does, how he approaches things…. definitely (the) defensive player of the year, in my eyes, but it was just great watching him (regardless).”

Note: The Steelers on Wednesday signed punter Cameron Nizialek to a reserve/future contract.

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Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .

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