Though T.J. Watt has 14 sacks in 12 appearances for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2023 NFL season, his defensive coordinator is still diving into the land of conspiracy theories—or creative explanations, depending on how you look at it—as he searches for reasons why his hyper-productive star player hasn’t been even more impactful.
Naturally, the reasoning from Teryl Austin involves former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal and his infamous woes at the free-throw line.
Teryl Austin Comes to T.J. Watt’s Defense
“The NFL has something going against me,” edge-rusher T.J. Watt said after Pittsburgh’s 24-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13, per ESPN’s Brooke Pryor. “So I don’t want to talk any more negatively towards them. I don’t know what I did, but I’ll leave it at that.”
During the ugly defeat, Watt registered six tackles (one for loss) and 0.5 sacks against Kyler Murray, snapping a streak of four consecutive games with at least one full sack and allowing Khalil Mack to overtake him for the league lead in successful quarterback takedowns.
Perhaps even more notably, he was forced to watch several plays from the sidelines with an apparent injury after offensive lineman Paris Johnson Jr. got away with what seemed like an uncalled hold that allowed Kyler Murray to escape Watt’s clutches and scramble for a first down.
Teryl Austin minced no words while coming to his star’s defense.
“I think T.J. runs into what all the elite rushers do,” he said. “These guys are going to hold you until they can’t because a lot of times that’s the only way they can block. I mean I share in his frustration, but I don’t think there’s anything that we can do about it. We can complain and we can do all that, but that really doesn’t solve the problem. So I think we just deal with it. We just continue to fight and go. It’s almost like the Hack-a-Shaq.”
Austin is referring to the strategies NBA teams employed against prime Shaquille O’Neal. Rather than letting him overpower them in the painted area, they’d instead hack away until a foul was called, forcing O’Neal to expose his lone weakness: a career 52.7% conversion rate at the free-throw line.
Obviously, Watt isn’t going to shoot any free throws. If he draws a holding call, the standard 10-yard penalty would be assessed to the opposition.
But Austin isn’t just referencing the hacking/holding itself, so much as the effect it has on referees when done over and over.
And over and over.
“People would hack Shaq all the time, and he got fouled so much, and everybody knew it was a foul, but after a while they didn’t call it because he was so doggone good,” he continued. “… We’re just going to play and fight through it, and T.J. will fight through it, and he’ll do it because a good pro and he’s a great player.”
Across sports, some players are so physically dominant that officiating them properly is truly impossible.
Austin is correct about O’Neal, who was so overpowering that referees couldn’t possibly blow the whistle every time he was fouled. And he may well be correct about Watt given his unstoppable nature when rushing the quarterback.
Austin is Partially Correct About how Watt is Officiated
T.J. Watt has been so dominant as a pass-rusher that teams have employed every strategy in the book to slow him down.
He’s subjected to constant double-teams and chip blocks. Schemes are designed solely to slow him down, a natural result of the consistent excellence that has helped him accrue double-digit sacks in every healthy season since his rookie year, including a near-record 22.5 in 2021.
It only stands to reason that opponents would try to sneak in the occasional hold, hoping it doesn’t get called but knowing the 10-yard penalty might be preferable to a quarterback takedown, loss of down, loss of yardage and possible fumble.
“T.J.’s held almost every play. That’s just how I feel,” fellow Steeler Alex Highsmith said, per All Steelers. “He’s up there rushing like hell. He’s crazy. I can sense his frustration but he’s a guy who’s balls to the walls every single play. When he doesn’t get some of those calls he should get, it’s definitely frustrating.”
Watt has myriad pass-rushing strategies in his arsenal, but he often uses a rip move to go around and through the outside blocker. In some of those situations, opposing tackles can get away with grabbing him before he’s made his way past them in full, knowing referees are reticent to put any yellow laundry on the field until the pass-rusher is being held from behind.
And that’s where Austin’s creative explanation goes a bit off-kilter.
The official NFL rulebook states that offensive holding will not be called “if, during a defensive charge, a defensive player uses a ‘rip’ technique that puts an offensive player in a position that would normally be holding.”
Some—not all—of the alleged uncalled holds certainly fall into this bucket, much to the chagrin of Watt, Austin and legions of Pittsburgh fans. But if it’s any solace, Watt isn’t the first player to experience such frustrations and certainly won’t be the last. Steelers supporters, for example, may remember James Harrison having similar troubles with uncalled holds on his rip-through moves.
Either way, it’s a massive testament to Watt’s pass-rushing excellence that he’s second on the sacks leaderboard despite the constant attention, the perceived vendetta against him and the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategies employed on a weekly basis.