Why Steelers Can Survive Injury to T.J. Watt, Still Make Playoff Run in 2022

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxCorrespondent ISeptember 13, 2022

T.J. Watt (AP Photo/Don Wright)

The Pittsburgh Steelers experienced several big changes during the 2022 offseason. Ben Roethlisberger retired, Kevin Colbert stepped down as general manager, and Teryl Austin replaced Keith Butler as defensive coordinator.

If you counted Pittsburgh out because of these changes, you haven't paid attention to the franchise's recent track record. Since Mike Tomlin was hired as head coach in 2007, the Steelers have never experienced a losing season.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh proved that even with a new personnel guru, a new defensive play-caller and a new quarterback—for now, Mitch Trubisky—it can hang with the best teams in the AFC. The Cincinnati Bengals are the defending conference champions. For the better part of four quarters, the Steelers looked like a far superior team.

Yes, the Bengals came back, forced overtime and only lost after they had an extra point blocked and Evan McPherson missed a chip-shot field goal—both likely caused by the use of backup long snapper Mitchell Wilcox. The Steelers, however, proved they will remain a force in the AFC North.

But their 23-20 victory came with a cost. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt suffered a torn pectoral and is expected to miss a significant amount of time. Obviously, that put a damper on what appeared to be a promising start to another potential playoff campaign.

For other AFC playoff hopefuls, though, it's still not safe to write off the Steelers.

Watt's Injury Is a Big Deal

Let's be clear: Losing Watt for any extended period is a huge deal. He's Pittsburgh's defensive centerpiece and one of the best pass-rushers of the modern era. He tied the NFL single-season record with 22.5 sacks in 2021, and he tallied an absurd 80 quarterback hits and 113 pressures over the last two seasons.

Against the Bengals, he was everywhere. He logged six tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.

A bright day for Watt turned dour, though, when the four-time Pro Bowler exited. If there's a silver lining regarding the injury, it's that Watt may not miss the rest of the season.

Jonathan Jones @jjones9

There's some optimism today in Pittsburgh that OLB and Reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt did not experience a full pec tear and will be able to return after sitting for a month or so, per league source. Still awaiting word from the team.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Watt will seek additional medical opinions and could return in six weeks if surgery isn't required.

Editor's Note: Watt was officially placed on the IR, the team announced Thursday. An injured reserve designation requires a player to miss a minimum of four games.

Even in a best-case scenario, Watt is likely to miss a month. That means Pittsburgh won't have its best defender for important conference matchups against the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills—three of its next four opponents.

If Watt needs surgery, he will likely be out until 2023.

There's no way to sugarcoat it: Losing Watt in Week 1 is about the worst thing that could happen to the Steelers. There isn't a more important player on the roster, and he will be out for at least the immediate future.

Why the Steelers Can Overcome

Even if we assume the worst, it doesn't mean Pittsburgh cannot still make the playoffs. It will definitely be a bigger challenge, but the Steelers still have a talented roster with quality key pieces. In many ways, this is a better team than the one that made the postseason in 2021.

Offensively, we have to start at quarterback. The Steelers may eventually move from Trubisky to rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett, but the former is an experienced veteran with a 30-21 record as a starter who has full control of Matt Canada's offense.

Is Trubisky a franchise quarterback? The Steelers wouldn't have drafted Pickett if they believed he could be. But Trubisky played as well Sunday as the aged Roethlisberger did at most points last season.

His stat line—21-of-38 for 194 yards and a touchdown with zero interceptions and three carries for nine yards—wasn't eye-opening, but Trubisky took care of the ball and made late clutch throws, including a pair of first-town tosses to tight end Pat Freiermuth on the game-winning drive.

Bob Pompeani @KDPomp

This is the play that ultimately won the wildest game of the weekend. Trubisky kept play alive, chose not to dump it off AND they hit Pat Freiermuth— experienced decision <a href="https://t.co/MdYG5qw12R">pic.twitter.com/MdYG5qw12R</a>

Pittsburgh took over on its 20-yard line with 56 seconds remaining in overtime, and Trubisky moved the Steelers into position for Chris Boswell's 53-yard game-winner.

And Trubisky has plenty of help. Freiermuth, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, George Pickens and running back Najee Harris make for one of the better skill-position groups in the NFL.

Johnson and Harris are Pro Bowlers. Claypool is a fine complementary target, and Freiermuth established himself as a reliable outlet as a rookie last season. Pickens and Calvin Austin III—who is on injured reserve with a foot ailment—are this year's promising rookies.

Freiermuth and Johnson had big grabs on the game-winning drive, and eight different players were targeted against Cincinnati. This group is only going to get better as it builds chemistry with Trubisky.

Harris suffered an ankle injury in Week 1, but it doesn't appear to be serious.

Jordan Schultz @Schultz_Report

Source: Najee Harris “should be fine” after suffering ankle injury. I’m told it’s “not serious.” Steelers hoping their Pro Bowl RB can play Week 2 vs the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Pats?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Pats</a>.

While Trubisky won't keep Pickett on the bench for years a la Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love, he can game-manage the Steelers to the postseason. Pittsburgh ranked 29th in yards per pass, 29th in yards per rush and 23rd in total offense last year and won nine games.

Defensively, the Steelers have plenty of talent in addition to Watt. Much of it was on display against the Bengals.

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick gave Pittsburgh an early lead with a pick-six, while Cameron Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon also logged interceptions. Alex Highsmith (three), Robert Spillane, Cameron Heyward and Arthur Maulet notched sacks of Joe Burrow.

The reigning Comeback Player of the Year was sacked seven times and committed five turnovers.

Do the Steelers have weaknesses? Sure. The offensive line—which added free agents Mason Cole and James Daniels in March—remains a work in progress. A run defense that ranked last in 2021 could still be an issue, though it appeared far more capable with Myles Jack manning the second level.

Cincinnati finished with 133 rushing yards but averaged 3.9 yards per carry.

And, of course, the Steelers still have Tomlin on the sideline. Sub-.500 football has never happened with him at the helm—Tomlin even salvaged an 8-8 record when Roethlisberger missed 14 games in 2019.

The Steelers weren't elite on either side of the ball in 2021 (24th in total defense), but under the veteran leadership of Tomlin, they regularly found ways to win.

There's little reason to believe things will be different, though replacing Watt's leadership and production will be an obvious challenge.

How Can the Steelers Replace Watt?

This is the big question, and the reality is that the Steelers can't replace Watt—not in any sort of one-for-one scenario. Players of Watt's caliber are rare. Short of trading for Myles Garrett or Micah Parsons, Pittsburgh isn't going to find an edge-rusher who can take over a game the way Watt can.

It can, however, replace his sack production, and that starts with players already on the roster. Highsmith, a third-year player out of Charlotte, has already shown he can be a high-level pass-rusher.

While he logged only six sacks last season, he had 26 quarterback pressures. His three sacks Sunday suggest the 25-year-old may be ready to take the proverbial next step. He'll probably be the guy leading the pass rush moving forward.

Louis Riddick @LRiddickESPN

Always believed <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Steelers?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Steelers</a> OLB Alex Highsmith had star potential. He looked dominant yesterday. Has the total rush package. They will need him now more than ever.

Malik Reed, acquired in a late-August trade with the Denver Broncos, will likely also be part of the equation. The fourth-year linebacker logged 13 sacks over the last two seasons and is prepared to take on a bigger role.

"I had a lot of opportunities starting games [in Denver], so I am going to be ready for it," Reed said, per Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The Steelers can also look to generate pressure with their defensive front, using three-time All-Pro Heyward and free-agent addition Larry Ogunjobi.

Ogunjobi had seven sacks and 24 quarterback pressures with Cincinnati last season.

If the Steelers do seek outside help for depth purposes, they have $8.9 million in salary-cap space. It's worth noting, though, that the free-agent pass-rushing pool is limited to Jason Pierre-Paul, Dee Ford, Takkarist McKinley and the like. Watt's replacement in the starting lineup will come from within.

Having a seasoned coordinator in Austin will help. He has been with the Steelers since 2019 and was a defensive coordinator with the Bengals and Detroit Lions. You can bet that he and Tomlin are already working on a revised strategy for Week 2.

As he did when Roethlisberger missed the majority of the season three years ago, Tomlin will find ways to keep this team competitive. Opposing quarterbacks may find a little more breathing room with Watt out, but by no means will they have easy days against the Black and Gold.

Losing Watt hurts, but it shouldn't dash the playoff hopes of the Steelers faithful. Fans of other teams should also recognize Pittsburgh won't go away any time soon.


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