August 11, 2022

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2021 Defeats: T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward Making…

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2021 Defeats: T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward Making...

NFL Offseason – Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones. Alan Page and Carl Eller. Leonard Marshall and Lawrence Taylor. Jerome Brown and Reggie White. Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs. Every decade in the NFL seems to have a dominant defensive lineman/edge rusher pairing, and now it’s time to add Pittsburgh’s pair of Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt to that list. With 36 defeats apiece, the Steelers’ set tied for the top spot as the NFL’s most disruptive defenders of 2021.

We have lots of statistics to measure quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and even kickers, but our numbers for individual defensive players are a lot more limited. Defeats are one way to account for defenders who make frequent appearances on highlight reels. A defender is credited with a defeat any time he makes one of the following plays:

  • A tackle that results in a loss of yardage, including sacks.
  • Any play that results in a turnover, including tipped passes which are then intercepted.
  • Any tackle or tipped pass that leads to a stop on third or fourth down.

Here are your leaders in defeats in 2021:

Most Defeats, All Defenders, 2021
Tm Player Pass DFT Rush DFT Total DFT
PIT Cameron Heyward 20 16 36
PIT T.J. Watt 26 10 36
DAL Micah Parsons 23 12 35
LAR Aaron Donald 19 15 34
KC L’Jarius Sneed 24 6 30
CHI Robert Quinn 22 7 29
CHI Roquan Smith 15 13 28
BUF Tremaine Edmunds 13 15 28
BUF Matt Milano 12 16 28
ATL Deion Jones 15 12 27
NO Cameron Jordan 15 12 27
LV Maxx Crosby 17 10 27
IND Darius Leonard 13 13 26
LAC Kyzir White 10 15 25
NO Demario Davis 11 14 25
CAR Brian Burns 16 9 25
SF Nick Bosa 17 8 25
LAR Von Miller 13 12 25
SF Azeez Al-Shaair 18 6 24
CAR Haason Reddick 16 8 24
CLE Myles Garrett 19 5 24

Let’s get into what Heyward and Watt did to finish tied for first. Heyward’s 36 defeats break down like so:

  • 11 sack plays
  • 11 tackles for loss on run plays
  • 8 tackles beyond the line of scrimmage that led to third-/fourth-down stops
  • 4 tipped passes that led to third-/fourth-down stops
  • 1 interception
  • 1 tipped pass leading to an interception

And here’s Watt’s path to 36:

  • 24 sack plays (including four forced fumbles, though each of those plays is counted just once)
  • 6 tackles for loss on run plays
  • 3 tackles beyond the line of scrimmage that led to third-/fourth-down stops
  • 2 tipped passes that led to third-/fourth-down stops
  • 1 forced fumble on a run play

Watt led the NFL with 26 pass defeats; Heyward’s 16 run defeats were tied with Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano for most in the league. For the completists, we’ll note that there were four plays where Heyward and Watt were both credited with defeats: sacks of Baker Mayfield and Ryan Tannehill, a third-down stop of Tyler Huntley, and a tackle of Alex Collins for a loss of 1.

We have defeats data compiled back to 1997, and this is the first time that two players from one team have finished atop the NFL. The 2007 Chiefs came close, with Derrick Johnson finishing first with 35 and Jared Allen third with 32. The 2003 Giants also had two players in the top three, with Micheal Barrow (36) and Michael Strahan (35) taking silver and bronze behind Ray Lewis (39). There were 11 other instances of two teammates finishing in the top five.

Our defeats data goes back nearly 25 years, but Pro Football Reference tracks Approximate Value back a lot farther than that—back to the birth of the AFL in 1960, in fact. They credited Heyward with 16 AV and Watt with 15 last season, the second year in a row that both players topped 15 AV. The season finder at PFR is a little tricky because it still uses the archaic DT/DE/LB position listings, but it appears that Heyward and Watt are the first interior lineman/edge rusher combo to each top 15 AV in multiple seasons since Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs, who did it in 2008 and 2011. Other inside/outside tag teams who pulled this off include Minnesota’s Kevin Williams and Jared Allen (2008-2009); Philadelphia’s Jerome Brown and Reggie White (1990-1991); Minnesota’s Alan Page and Carl Eller (1969-1971 and 1973); Kansas City’s Buck Buchanan and Bobby Bell (1968-1969); and the L.A. Rams’ Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones (1966-1967). This is some exclusive company.

We can put Heyward and Watt in even more exclusive company, however, by focusing on sack data. For the second straight season, Watt led the NFL in sacks, credited with 22.5 quarterback takedowns. Heyward chipped in with 10.0 of his own. That makes Pittsburgh the first team with a 20-sack player and a 10-sack teammate since the Minnesota Vikings in 1989, when Chris Doleman led the league with 21.0 sacks and Defensive Player of the Year Keith Millard added 18.0 from his defensive tackle spot. (That’s not even counting the 11.5 Al Noga had from the left end position opposite Doleman.) Officially, only one other team has ever gone 20 and 10: the 1986 Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who got an NFL-high 20.5 sacks from league MVP Lawrence Taylor and a dozen more from Leonard Marshall. Unofficially, Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau each had 20-plus sacks for the 1981 Jets, the only pair to ever do that. Per PFR, other 20-10 tandems include Al Baker and John Woodcock with the 1978 Lions, Harvey Martin and Randy White with the 1977 Cowboys, and Jim Katcavage and Andy Robustelli with the 1963 Giants.

Interior Linemen

Most Defeats, Interior Linemen, 2021
Tm Player Pass DFT Rush DFT Total DFT
PIT Cameron Heyward 20 16 36
LAR Aaron Donald 19 15 34
BUF Ed Oliver 8 13 21
PHI Javon Hargrave 11 8 19
DEN Shelby Harris 9 10 19
MIA Christian Wilkins 6 13 19
TEN Jeffery Simmons 11 7 18
CIN Larry Ogunjobi 9 8 17
IND DeForest Buckner 10 6 16
NYG Leonard Williams 9 7 16
LAR Greg Gaines 7 8 15
KC Chris Jones 12 2 14
WAS Jonathan Allen 10 4 14
LV Quinton Jefferson 7 7 14
DEN Dre’Mont Jones 7 6 13
SF D.J. Jones 4 9 13
PIT Chris Wormley 8 4 12
JAX Dawuane Smoot 8 4 12
TB Vita Vea 7 5 12
LAC Jerry Tillery 6 6 12
PHI Fletcher Cox 5 7 12
HOU Maliek Collins 5 7 12
NYG Austin Johnson 4 8 12
NYG Dexter Lawrence 4 8 12
ARI Zach Allen 4 8 12
SEA Poona Ford 3 9 12

This is the third time Heyward has finished first among interior linemen, and the sixth time he has made the top 10, since he became a starter in 2013. He knocks Aaron Donald into second place, ending a three-year stretch for Donald at the top of these tables. (Donald and Heyward were tied for first in 2019.) In eight NFL seasons, Donald has now finished first at the position four times, second three times, and third once. The only interior linemen who have ever finished ahead of Donald are J.J. Watt (2014 and 2015), Ndamukong Suh (2014), and Heyward (2017 and 2021). That’s a pretty good list.

Heyward led all interior linemen in both rush defeats and pass defeats, with one more than Donald in each category.

Edge Rushers

Most Defeats, Edge Rushers, 2021
Tm Player Pass DFT Rush DFT Total DFT
PIT T.J. Watt 26 10 36
CHI Robert Quinn 22 7 29
NO Cameron Jordan 15 12 27
LV Maxx Crosby 17 10 27
DEN/LAR Von Miller 13 12 25
CAR Brian Burns 16 9 25
SF Nick Bosa 17 8 25
CAR Haason Reddick 16 8 24
CLE Myles Garrett 19 5 24
ARI Chandler Jones 13 10 23
PIT Alex Highsmith 8 14 22
BAL Tyus Bowser 11 11 22
LAR Leonard Floyd 14 8 22
NE Matt Judon 14 8 22
TEN Harold Landry 15 6 21
TB Shaquil Barrett 15 6 21
JAX Josh Allen 11 9 20
CIN Sam Hubbard 11 9 20
TEN Denico Autry 14 6 20
MIA Emmanuel Ogbah 15 5 20

This is the third straight year that T.J. Watt has led all edge rushers in defeats, and the fifth time in the last decade that a Watt brother has led the NFL in that category. (C’mon, Derek, pick up the slack.) Watt also finished first at the position in pass defeats, but three edge rushers managed more rush defeats. One was—naturally—another Steelers linebacker: Alex Highsmith, a 2020 third-round draftee out of Charlotte who blossomed in his first season as a starter. (There is a reason Pittsburgh made the playoffs last year, and it wasn’t Ben Roethlisberger.) The others were Cameron Jordan and Von Miller, who were still excelling in their 11th and 10th seasons as starters, respectively.


Most Defeats, Linebackers, 2021
Tm Player Pass DFT Rush DFT Total DFT
DAL Micah Parsons 23 12 35
BUF Matt Milano 12 16 28
BUF Tremaine Edmunds 13 15 28
CHI Roquan Smith 15 13 28
ATL Deion Jones 15 12 27
IND Darius Leonard 13 13 26
LAC Kyzir White 10 15 25
NO Demario Davis 11 14 25
SF Azeez Al-Shaair 18 6 24
HOU Kamu Grugier-Hill 8 15 23
ATL Foyesade Oluokun 10 13 23
SEA Jordyn Brooks 10 13 23
HOU Christian Kirksey 11 12 23
GB De’Vondre Campbell 15 8 23
CAR Shaq Thompson 15 8 23
NYJ Quincy Williams 7 14 21
NYJ C.J. Mosley 9 12 21
SEA Bobby Wagner 11 10 21
PIT Joe Schobert 12 8 20
MIA Jerome Baker 12 8 20
ARI Isaiah Simmons 14 6 20

Dallas rookie Micah Parsons runs away with the lead here, though that comes with something of an asterisk because the Cowboys gave him about a 60/40 split between snaps at linebacker and at edge rusher. That doesn’t necessarily give Parsons an advantage—defeat totals for edge rushers and linebackers are usually pretty similar—but if you want to argue Parsons shouldn’t be listed at this position and that the defeats crown for linebackers should go to Chicago’s Roquan Smith (who tied for the league lead among all players in 2020) or the Buffalo combo of Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, have at it. For the record, here’s the unusual path Parsons took to get to his 35 defeats:

  • 14 sack plays
  • 10 tackles for loss on run plays
  • 6 tackles beyond the line of scrimmage that led to third-/fourth-down stops
  • 4 tackles for loss on receptions
  • 1 tipped pass that led to a third-/fourth-down stop

One more defeat would have moved Parsons to the top of the NFL pile, something no rookie has done since Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing in 2009. Cushing (37 defeats in his first season) and Colts linebacker Darius Leonard (37 in 2018) are the only rookies on record to beat Parsons’ defeats total of 35.

Thanks to his odd usage, two-thirds of Parsons defeats came against the pass. Despite his dominant lead in overall defeats, he didn’t even make the top 10 linebackers in defeats on run plays. The leader there was Milano, who has bounced in and out of the starting lineup in Buffalo over the years but was a force in 2021, making 16 defeats against the run; his teammate Edmunds was one of a handful of players tied for second place with 15. Mind you, Milano and Edmunds weren’t the only players on the Bills defense who had good years…


Most Defeats, Safeties, 2021
Tm Player Pass DFT Rush DFT Total DFT
BUF Micah Hyde 19 4 23
DAL Jayron Kearse 14 9 23
LAC Derwin James 15 5 20
BUF Jordan Poyer 14 6 20
NYG Logan Ryan 16 3 19
CAR Jeremy Chinn 12 7 19
NE Adrian Phillips 11 8 19
SEA Jamal Adams 9 10 19
MIA Eric Rowe 15 3 18
PIT Terrell Edmunds 13 5 18
CIN Vonn Bell 12 6 18
DEN Justin Simmons 11 7 18
LV Johnathan Abram 9 9 18
TB Antoine Winfield 12 5 17
ARI Jalen Thompson 7 10 17
NYG Xavier McKinney 15 1 16
ARI Budda Baker 13 3 16
LAR Taylor Rapp 11 5 16
PIT Minkah Fitzpatrick 10 6 16
NE Kyle Dugger 8 8 16

We have another tie, with Buffalo’s Micah Hyde and Dallas’ Jayron Kearse dead-even at the top spot. Hyde has been a starter for the Bills and Packers for each of the last six seasons, but his breakout at age 31 still somewhat came from out of nowhere—his previous high had been 19 defeats, set back in his first year in Buffalo in 2017, and he had only six in 15 starts in 2020. At least he was in the starting lineup, though. Kearse started only 12 games in five seasons with the Lions and Vikings before starting 15 for the Cowboys in 2021. He was especially effective as a blitzer, with nine tackles for loss. That’s why Hyde led all safeties in pass defeats, but Kearse topped him in run defeats.

Kearse was not the top safety in run defeats, however. That honor goes to two safeties from the NFC West who had 10 each: Arizona’s Jalen Thompson and—yes—Seattle’s Jamal Adams. Thompson only started 13 games in his first two seasons; he made 12 official starts in 2021, but he was on the field for over 90% of Arizona’s defensive snaps, so realistically he was a full-time starter. He was actually tied with Chandler Jones for the team lead in run defeats, which is probably not good news for the Cardinals, especially considering that they spent first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 on linebackers. Adams, meanwhile, had finished first or second at the position in total defeats for three years in a row before falling to a tie for fifth last season. Injuries knocked him out for five games, and when he did play, Seattle’s conservative coverage schemes had him dropping back more than blitzing, and his sack total fell from 9.5 to zero. He was still among the very best, however, when it came to putting running backs on the ground.


Most Defeats, Cornerbacks, 2021
Tm Player Pass DFT Rush DFT Total DFT
KC L’Jarius Sneed 24 6 30
NE J.C. Jackson 21 2 23
LAR Jalen Ramsey 14 9 23
NO Marshon Lattimore 22 0 22
DAL Jourdan Lewis 20 0 20
BUF Taron Johnson 16 4 20
PHI Avonte Maddox 16 3 19
CIN Mike Hilton 14 5 19
CIN Chidobe Awuzie 16 2 18
SF K’Waun Williams 13 5 18
IND Kenny Moore 12 6 18
JAX Tyson Campbell 15 2 17
ATL A.J. Terrell 16 0 16
CLE Troy Hill 12 4 16
DAL Anthony Brown 15 0 15
WAS Kendall Fuller 14 1 15
MIA Xavien Howard 13 2 15
PHI Darius Slay 13 2 15
NO P.J. Williams 11 4 15
DAL Trevon Diggs 14 0 14
ATL Fabian Moreau 12 2 14

Yes, there was a second-year cornerback making more big plays than anyone at the position has in decades, but it’s not the one you’re thinking of. Apparently nobody told Kansas City’s L’Jarius Sneed that corners aren’t supposed to make defeats. He’s only the second cornerback in our books to hit 30 defeats in a season, and the first since Ronde Barber had 31 for Tampa Bay way back in 2001. How did he do it? On the surface, he didn’t have a lot of splash plays—only two interceptions and one sack (though that sack resulted in a forced fumble and, officially, a loss of 21 yards). But he had six tackles for a loss on completions and five more on runs, plus a dozen tackles beyond the line of scrimmage that led to third-/fourth-down stops. The Chiefs used a lot of dime defense (28%, second only to Miami), and Sneed often found himself in a “slot linebacker” role, chasing down ballcarriers on runs and short passes.

Trevon Diggs, meanwhile, barely makes the top 20 corners in defeats despite leading the NFL with 11 interceptions, most by any player in the last 40 years. Aside from those plays, however, he only had three other defeats all season: one defensed third-down pass against Philadelphia in Week 3, another against the Giants in Week 5, and a tackle on a 9-yard gain on third-and-10 against the Giants in Week 15. 

Sneed led all cornerbacks in defeats and pass defeats, but that does not mean that he was the best cornerback in football. Jalen Ramsey, on the other hand, may well have been the best cornerback in football, and his nine run defeats—three more than any other corner—are a big reason why. He didn’t get many pass defeats because opponents rarely threw at him (he did not make the top 60 corners in target rate), but Ramsey is the rare corner who combines shutdown coverage skills with physical tackling ability, and running at him wasn’t a good strategy either.