TJ Watt sealed his first Defensive Player of the Year award by torturing Baker Mayfield
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It was a tight battle in the fourth quarter of the final Monday Night Football game of the 2021 NFL season. It’s not on the scoreboard. The stat sheet.

This is where, with just two minutes remaining in Ben Roethlisberger’s likely Heinz Field final, the box score gave rise to this neck-and–neck race.

Baker Mayfield

  • completed passes: 10
  • sacks taken: 9

The Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t pull off the rally, despite the 26-14 victory that kept their playoff hopes alive. Mayfield successfully completed a few garbage time passes — one to Pittsburgh — and finally won the title of “had more completions then sacks”. TJ Watt was there to help.

Watt ensured Roethlisberger was a winner at the North Shore’s hometown finale. To ruin the Browns’ night, he sacked Mayfield four more times and scored five more quarterback hits. That gives the Steeler edge rusher a league-best 21.5 sacks in 14 games this season — only one other player, Robert Quinn, has more than 15 in 2021. He also leads the league in quarterback hits (36) and tackles for loss (20, tied with Micah Parsons).

This has made him the clear frontrunner for NFL Defensive Player Of The Year. His betting odds to win the honor, per Tipico Sportsbook, slingshotted from +175 to -450 after demolishing Cleveland and salting the earth behind him.

Watt has a nightmare-inducing performance that will see him break Aaron Donald’s grip on the award. The Los Angeles Rams’ defensive tackle has won DPOY in three of the last four years, beating out Watt by only seven votes last winter. 2022 looks very much like the former Wisconsin’s star’s year to join his brother JJ among the league’s immortal list of pass-rushing, run-stuffing, drive-erasing royalty.

He still hasn’t got his votes in order. Let’s look at who could siphon Watt’s votes for an award that he’s likely to win anyway. All odds via Tipico.

12 other players have finished a single season with at least 20 sacks in NFL history. Half of those men went on to win DPOY awards. Since 2000, two-thirds of the players to hit that mark have won the award (Justin Houston, who had 22 sacks in 2014, wound up getting beaten by JJ Watt, who had 20.5 that winter).

Watt can boost his resume with a league-record 23rd sack next week against the Baltimore Ravens. We’ve only seen the record broken once since Mark Gastineau had 22 sacks in 1984, but that was enough to get Michael Strahan the award in 2001 in a season where Ronde Barber had 10 interceptions and Brian Urlacher was a barely contained tornado.

Sacks can be used to count a player’s defense value. Watt has had 21.5 passing plays that ended in negative yardage. Factor in his tackles for loss and you’ve got 41.5 plays that resulted in likely “and-long” situations. The Pittsburgh linebacker is responsible for the single-handed magic that prevents scoring drives from happening.

He is also tied for fourth place in the league with four forced turnovers.

Watt’s record would be slightly tinged by the 17th game added in 2021, but it’s notable that he’s at 21.5 sacks despite playing through injury and making only 14 starts this season. His offense is largely mediocre, which has helped him to a +. 500 record on a defense that hasn’t been great aside from its pass rush.

This has been a breakthrough season, even though the guy was an All-Pro. That’s wild.

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There are currently no odds that Parsons will win Defensive Player of the Year. Tipico is aware that he has the right stuff.

The first-year linebacker has been a multi-faceted wrecking ball and a massive reason behind the Dallas defense’s jump from 23rd in total DVOA in 2020 to first place this fall. He can do a lot of things and is very good at it. He’s got 13 sacks and 30 quarterback hits as a pass rusher. He’s got 20 tackles for loss as a lane-destroying run defender. He’s been targeted 33 times in coverage and allowed just a 73.0 passer rating when opposing quarterbacks try to burn him.

Parsons is a revelation in Texas. His versatility has allowed Randy Gregory to be his best pass rusher, and more importantly, it has given the Cowboys the ability to succeed despite DeMarcus Lawrence’s injuries and ineffectiveness.

Donald might lose votes because AP members get tired of giving him this award. This doesn’t mean he’s fallen off, even in his age 30 season.

Just a quick illustration to remind you that Aaron Donald is STILL better than your favorite edge rusher/linebacker. pic.twitter.com/ctAMDzWmOh

— jonah (@j_nametag) December 27, 2021

That chart, courtesy of ESPN’s advanced stats, tells us Donald gets double- (or triple-) teamed roughly 70 percent of the time and still beats his blockers from the inside more than most edge rushers do coming around the corner. The only player in 2021 to record a higher pass rush win rate is Myles Garrett. Myles Garrett is the reigning DPOY when it comes to interior defenses.

Donald is often smothered in his own skin because it’s part of his job as a tackle, to clear blockers and create lanes that allow the other guys to cause chaos. He is unmatched in his ability to break through the protection. The 2021 season marks the the fourth straight in which he’s recorded at least 12 sacks and 24 quarterback hits. These are great Reggie White and J.J. Watt numbers.

In a normal year, that would be enough to win DPOY. He’ll be unable to compete with Watt’s record-breaking season, and Parsons’ ridiculous ripple effect in Dallas. Instead, he’ll be a seventh-straight All-Pro on the first team.

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Garrett told the media he would do everything in his power to make Week 17 Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field. Garrett had only one tackle and zero sacks in the final game at Heinz Field, while he was under national scrutiny and facing an inept Steeler offensive line.

This doesn’t mean that his impact was not felt in Pittsburgh. The passing chart of a veteran quarterback, with declining arm strength and the logic that Garrett won’t be able to get to him if the ball isn’t thrown within a second:

Roethlisberger’s 2. 22 seconds in the pocket per throw was the lowest of anyone in Week 17 — the next closest QB clocked in at 2.41. It’s easy to track that desire to get rid of the ball to Garrett, who had two quarterback hits to push his season total to 31, second only to Watt. In Week 16, Aaron Rodgers unloaded the ball in 2. 27s per pass, second-lowest number of that week. Tyler Huntley’s average time to pass in Week 14 was 2. 47 seconds, fourth-lowest.

Teams plan around Garrett like he’s an integral part of the game. He’s going to screw up your passing plans a league-best 28 percent of the time, per ESPN:

He, Jadeveon Clowney (6th on that list) are the reason why Cleveland has only blitzed on percent of its defensive downs this season. Miami is at nearly percent). 6 on that list) are the reason why Cleveland has only blitzed on 20 percent of its defensive downs this season (the league high is Miami at nearly 40 percent). Browns’ edge-rushing combo is more valuable than any other team in the league and allows them to cover more players. Garrett is the engine behind this, even though it means that he has to play second fiddle in Watt’s division.

Diggs can be a frustrating cornerback. When he guesses right he creates magic; his 11 interceptions are the most in a single season since 1981. If he is wrong, the ball escapes his grasp and hits its target. This creates huge space for him to run in the vacuum created by his jump. This was most prominently when he tried to cut a Mac Jones deep ball in Week 6. His safety assistance failed him.

This wasn’t an isolated event; it usually happens about once per week. Here’s how it happened in Week 17:

Diggs attempts to jump what he believes is an out or hook route, and then flies as A.J. Green is swept by him. Only an underthrow from Kyler Murray kept this from being the fifth touchdown pass Diggs has given up in 2021.

As a result, he’s allowing more than 16 yards per completion but only a 52.4 percent completion rate. His 8.6 yards allowed per target ranks 211th among qualified defenders.

But those interceptions are the main event and, to his credit, his risk/reward ratio has swung heavily towards the Cowboys. It won’t be enough to win him the award; only two cornerbacks have been named DPOY since 1994. Stephon Gilmore and Charles Woodson were the two defensive backs who took home the trophy, which was more than Diggs.

Factor in that he’s not the best defensive player on his team. You’ve got a candidacy going nowhere. That’s still a great season for the second-year player.

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