How T.J. Watt found his voice with the Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- A pack of Steelers defenders swarmed a running back, and T.J. Watt couldn't resist.

"Look at that pursuit!" Watt bellowed in the direction of a group of reporters during OTAs as he helped chase down the target. "Write about that pursuit!"

No longer is Watt the reserved pass-rusher looking to solidify a role. His role is to be heard -- with his play, with his work, and with his mouth.

Coming off a 13-sack season and a Pro Bowl, the Steelers expect results in all three areas. In fact, outside linebacker Bud Dupree says Watt has become one of the two primary defensive leaders, alongside captain Cam Heyward.

"Cam has always been a leader, and T.J. is stepping into that role now as well," Dupree said. "It always has to be more than one leader on the team. T.J. has the personality to be energetic, talkative to the group. He has what it takes to do it. People respect him."

Watt knows this evolution took time. As a rookie and first-round pick in 2017, Watt admits to mostly staying quiet and doing his job. Dupree said his teammate didn't open up much to the rest of the group.

The 24-year-old revealed more of himself in Year 2, and as his sack total grew from seven to 13 -- and the post-sack celebrations became more boisterous -- so did his presence off the field.

Watt's work ethic never was questioned. Every summer, he gets after it in his native Wisconsin with a 5,000-calorie-a-day diet and multiple daily training sessions.

That others noticed gave him an outlet to be himself. This offseason, for example, Watt has been known to initiate personalized handshakes with several teammates before 11-man work, while pumping up the group.

“I feel like I haven’t totally proved myself,” Watt said. "But through what I have done around here, the extra work that everyone sees me put [in], that I can start to get into that leadership role and have a voice on this defense.

"I don’t care what anyone outside of this locker room thinks of me. I care what these guys think about me and I earn that through working hard and they all see that. I think that’s the biggest thing here, having respect. You earn respect through working hard and doing the right things on and off the field.”

The Steelers are reaping the benefits. Dupree said teammates are "seeing how T.J. really is" now, a loyal friend who keeps things loose.

Watt came to Pittsburgh as the younger brother of NFL superstar J.J. Watt, but his family rarely comes up at the facility.

"He gets that from everywhere, so we try to keep it about T.J. here," Dupree said.

Watt was hopeful a leadership role would eventually crystallize because of the tone he has tried to set.

“Dating back to my Wisconsin days, you just get your feet wet and get the respect of a lot of guys," Watt said. "You see that guys are starting to follow you and ask questions, how you sleep, how your diet is, how you study film. You think, ‘Wow, some guys are starting to follow in my footsteps. It’s time to take on a leadership role.’ It kind of blossoms into what it is."

Watt's next step is improving the play that got him to the Pro Bowl, while trying to take teammates with him.

He knows now that relating to everyone takes a diversified approach.

"[Everyone] takes coaching and everything differently," Watt said. "[It's about] being a guy that works really hard, showing through example and then talking when the time is right, not trying to overcoach and be somebody that I’m not."