PITTSBURGH (AP) — On the surface, they couldn't be more different. One is the self-professed country boy from Georgia with the easy laugh. The other is a quiet kid from Wisconsin who happens to be the youngest member of a family that treats football not so much a sport but a calling.
Bud Dupree, however, wants to let you in on a little secret. That “aw shucks” demeanor fellow Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt carries around? It's all a front.
“T.J.'s one of us,” Dupree said in his unique clipped southern drawl. “He's a savage.”
Takes one to know one.
Following two years in which their partnership seemed to thrive only in fits and starts, Dupree and Watt have evolved into one of the best edge rusher tandems in the NFL. They've combined for 22 sacks, 25 tackles for loss and 42 quarterback hits for the Steelers (8-5). Their brand of weekly chaos one of the main reasons Pittsburgh remains in the hunt for an unlikely playoff berth heading into Sunday's visit by Buffalo (9-4).
It's the kind of production head coach Mike Tomlin admits he expects from first-round picks in their mid-20s, that point in a player's career when the game slows down as the mind speeds up. It's a point the ever-precocious Watt reached in 2018, when he rolled up 13 sacks in his second season en route to the Pro Bowl. It's a point Dupree flirted with but never quite arrived at during his first four years in the league, when flashes of dominance would mix with long stretches when his No. 48 would blend into the background.
Not anymore. Whether it's the natural maturation process or the added incentive of looming free agency, Dupree is thriving, his ever present prodigious physical gifts meshing with a studious approach that's put him in line for a massive payday next spring.
“It's his last year of his contract, he should (be playing like this),” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “I'm serious. He should. But he should have done that last year, too, because his body of work is what people are going to pay him for in the league and stuff like that. But he understands that he's a big part of the defense.”
Dupree's 9 1/2 sacks are a career high, but he's just as effective against the run. His most important play this season may have come in the final moments of a 26-24 victory over Indianapolis on Nov. 3. He split two blockers and dropped Colts running back Marlon Mack for a 3-yard loss. Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri's potential winning field goal sailed wide left on the next snap and Pittsburgh held on.
It's the kind of play Dupree might not have made earlier in his career. Not for lack of effort, but from a lack of understanding of his own gifts. Inside linebacker Vince Williams likened the 6-foot-4, 269-pound Dupree's play this fall to an “awakening.”
“It's like, 'I'm going to go out here and nobody can stop me,” Williams said. "Like I don't know if that makes sense, but from a football perspective it does because sometimes you've just got to understand nobody is going to block you and just having that type of mindset."
A mindset that Watt seemed to have from the jump. Blame it on a survival instinct honed from being the kid brother in a group that includes Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Though he was the youngest of the bunch — middle brother Derek is a fullback for the Los Angeles Chargers — T.J. Watt didn't get babied.
Rather than cower in the shadows, T.J. forged ahead — an approach that developed the mental toughness required to thrive for a franchise with a legacy at outside linebacker, including some of the most notorious game wreckers in NFL history. From Greg Lloyd to Kevin Greene to Joey Porter to James Harrison.
“I grew up being compared to my brothers,” Watt said. “So you can't get caught into a comparison battle because you'll drive yourself crazy.”
Watt and Dupree are doing more than holding their own. Their combined sacks total this season are the team's most through 13 games since Harrison and LaMarr Woodley had 24 1/2 at the same point in 2008. The Steelers, by the way, went on to win their sixth Super Bowl that year.
The challenge for this group is far more daunting thanks to a slew of injuries on offense that have forced a drastic shift in approach. Pittsburgh's hope is to get to 20 points and make that enough. For two-plus months it has been, thanks in large part to Dupree and Watt serving as the bookends on a defense that leads the NFL in sacks and takeaways.
“It's the competitive nature of their position,” Williams said. "You've got guys like T.J. and Bud, they can bounce ideas off of each other. I remember having that kindred spirit in Ryan (Shazier). That's what I compared it to and I was telling both of them, you feed off each other. Use that. If you've got any questions or if you see something, share all that information with each other, use each other to play better."
And they do.
“We're kind of studying different things and then we share our notes so we're not wasting time,” Watt said. “We can verify things. He can say, 'Look I'm seeing this for a snap count or a run/pass key and can we check on this for me and vice/versa.”
That way, when they get on the field, they're reacting instead of thinking. It's led to a series of giddy sack celebrations, though Dupree admits Watt's dancing could use some work.
“He's trying,” Dupree said with a laugh. “I'm teaching him.”
Just one “savage” looking out for another.
NOTES: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster's attempt to play for the first time in four weeks met a setback when he was limited in practice on Thursday a day after being a full participant. ... RB James Conner (shoulder) practiced for the second straight day and is tracking toward a return.
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