PITTSBURGH — On the surface they’re identical. Below the surface too. Large. Loud. Remarkably athletic and remarkably close. Well compensated and well tattooed.
Still, Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey believes there is one surefire way to tell him and Los Angeles Chargers center (and very slightly older brother) Mike apart on Sunday night when the Chargers visit Heinz Field.
Just have the twins switch places at halftime and let Maurkice snap the ball to Los Angeles quarterback Philip Rivers for a quarter or two. Then the differences between the Pounceys will be unmistakable.
“I’ll take that team to the next level baby,” Maurkice Pouncey said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “They’ll definitely notice.”
Maurkice is kidding. Mostly, though he does have a slight edge over Mike in Pro Bowl selections (six to three). The 29-year-olds are well aware of the unique opportunity playing against each other offers. Separated by a minute at birth, the Pounceys were virtually inseparable growing up until Maurkice left the University of Florida for the NFL in 2010.
They’ve spent their professional lives rooting for each other from afar — Sunday is only the fifth time they’ll be together in the same NFL stadium — and both feared Mike’s career might be in jeopardy after a hip injury limited him to five games with the Miami Dolphins in 2016.
“It was a point that we both thought that and it was tough,” Maurkice said. “Lord willing, a lot of hard work, and the doctors did a great job. Obviously he’s playing at a high level and he’s been blessed to be out there.”
Mike returned to play a full 16 games last season, but found himself looking for work after the Dolphins cut him in a salary cap move in March. The Chargers sprinted to scoop him up, bringing him to the West Coast on a two-year, $15 million deal just four days after getting released. The change of scenery provided Mike Pouncey with a mid-career jolt, and his presence has played a significant role in the Chargers’ hot 8-3 start.
“We knew it was a big signing when we signed him,” Los Angeles coach Anthony Lynn said. “But it’s even better than what I thought.”
Asked what the Mike Pouncey experience is like, Lynn laughed.
“I’m pretty sure it’s similar to what you guys have in Pittsburgh,” he said.
Translation: a lot of jokes. A lot of trash talk. And a relentless work ethic that belies their copious amounts of swagger.
“He’s the same player as me,” Mike Pouncey said. “He’s going to go out there and give you everything he has on each play. (My teammates) more excited (than I am) because we have a real good friendship on this team, and they go out there and talk smack to my brother to make me feel a little bit better. It’s going to be fun.”
The entire Pouncey clan will descend on Maurkice’s house in the Pittsburgh suburbs on Saturday. As for split allegiances, Maurkice’s offer to host came with one very simple directive: If you root for the Steelers, you can crash at his place. If not? You’re on your own.
How tight are they? Maurkice admits Mike might be the only person in the world outside of his children he actually calls on the phone rather than just texting.
It’s the same for Derek and T.J. Watt, though the two brothers — T.J. is a second-year linebacker for the Steelers, Derek is in his third season as a fullback for the Chargers — won’t have the luxury of standing on the sideline watching the other play like the Pounceys do.
There’s a very real chance that T.J. and Derek will find themselves on a collision course sometime Sunday night, the first time that’s ever happened somewhere other than the family backyard or the random University of Wisconsin football practice when both were playing for the Badgers.
Not that T.J. believes there’s going to be time to think about bragging rights. If his assignment on a play is to ram into the guy wearing No. 34, then that’s what he’s going to do.
“It’s a football game to me,” T.J. said. “I don’t think anything is going to really change. I don’t think in that split second you can determine who’s who and what’s what, so whatever happens, happens.”
Older brother J.J., the star defensive end for the Houston Texans, hopes they are forced to ram into each other at least once so “we can settle it once and for all.” Provided, of course, there’s no cheating on either side.
“I basically just said, no cut-blocks,” J.J. said. “That’s the only thing. Just don’t go at his knees. Otherwise, everything’s fair.”
Though Derek, 26, lacks the star power of his older or his younger brother — both of whom were first-round picks while the Chargers selected Derek in the sixth round in 2016 — T.J., 24, might know better than anyone on the planet that you overlook the middle Watt brother at your own risk.
“He may not get all the publicity that J.J. and I get, but Derek’s been in the NFL, this is his third year,” T.J. said. “I don’t see many people in America doing that. I don’t see many people in the world doing that. He’s playing at the highest level. He’s a starting fullback for an NFL team; I think that’s pretty damn cool.”
Connie and John Watt will watch their boys go at it from the stands, trying to stay as neutral as possible. They might want to get used to it. All three Watt brothers are on teams heading to the postseason, meaning more family showdowns loom.
“I hope the game, I don’t know, I guess ends in a tie,” J.J. Watt said. “I guess that’s probably the best thing for everybody. It’s probably good for (the Texans) too.”