Any concerns about T.J. Watt’s being unready for NFL action after he only began full practices with the team earlier this week lasted a little over 21 minutes of game action on Sunday. Back on the field against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 after returning to practice with a new, four-year contract extension, Watt broke free for a sack and forced fumble of a scrambling Josh Allen. Cameron Heyward recovered, Watt had his first sack of the 2021 season, and followed it up with his patented high kick celebration.
It was the first of a pair of sacks for Watt in Week 1, a 23-16 Pittsburgh win over the Buffalo Bills. Watt was present at practices throughout camp, he just did not participate fully in team drills. He returned to full participation this week but speculation remained about whether he would get a full work load in Week 1 given the missed time. It proved unnecessary, as Watt returned and had a big game to celebrate his new contract, to the happiness of his teammates who were excited to see him get paid first, and then to have him out there with them Sunday.
“He’s had a heck of a week, but not everybody can do what he does. And for him to go out there and handle the way he handled and capitalize on it with a win like this, pretty proud of him,” Steeler defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “I know it wasn’t always pretty for him and he wanted to be out there with us, but you know, got done. Everybody’s happy. And then you get to capitalize with the W on top of it.”
Behind the play of both Watt and Heyward, as well as other performers like Cameron Sutton, the Steelers’ defense kept the Buffalo Bills out of the end zone on all but one drive on Sunday. Their effort set the table for a pair of big plays from the Steeler offense and special teams to give them the win in the fourth quarter.
Watt’s two sacks, forced fumble, and five hits on QB Josh Allen made for a strong first game after signing his four-year extension worth $112 million, with $80 million guaranteed, making him the highest-paid defensive player in football. Heyward wasn’t far off from him, putting together a performance befitting a Pro Bowler and captain with four tackles, a sack, and two passes defensed at the line.
Those were all three of the team’s sacks in the game, though the attention the duo received did free up space for other pressures from edge rushers Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram, each of whom drew a holding penalty on a Buffalo lineman to prevent them from getting sacks of their own. But not every snap saw Watt get extra attention, which Watt was able to take advantage of for the first two sacks of a season-long chase for the team’s single-season record, which stands at 16.
“I think he does a great job of capitalizing on what offense gives him. I think understanding when his number is called and he’s gonna get single coverage and they’re going to leave him on the island with one guy, he’s going to make him pay,” Heyward said. “That’s a tribute to him. That’s a tribute to our back end, and the other guys up front. I think it works all hand in hand to have a good defense to go along with T.J.”
The Steelers’ defense has one win under its belt, an upset over one of the AFC’s top Super Bowl contenders. It gets an easier test next Sunday in Week 2, against the Las Vegas Raiders.