The Pittsburgh Steelers’ front seven is somewhat in flux as they enter the 2021 regular season. Starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt, for one thing, is on the Reserve/Injured List. Alex Highsmith, a second-year player entering a full-time starting role for the first time, is nursing a groin injury. T.J. Watt, their superstar pass rusher, only started practicing on Wednesday.
That means he and Melvin Ingram, the three-time Pro Bowler they signed just before the start of training camp, have hardly even gotten the chance to work together yet. Don’t count head coach Mike Tomlin among those who find anything to worry about in that, however.
“I’m not concerned about that at all”, he told reporters earlier this week when he was asked about the two veteran pass rushers building some on-field chemistry. “One guy plays on the left, the other guy plays on the right. If they’re both doing a really good job they meet at the quarterback”.
Watt just wrapped up a blockbuster contract extension that pays him $28 million per season in new money and included $80 million fully guaranteed at signing, including three years of fully guaranteed salary, which is unprecedented for the Steelers. He had not been practicing with the defense all offseason, but had been involved in every other way.
Ingram has impressed since he has gotten into town, and had a strong preseason. I don’t suspect that either of them will need much time to warm up to one another. Anyway, it’s not like the two edge rushers are the ones who are working stunts. Generally, one edge coordinates with his defensive end or tackle. If two edges meet in the backfield, that’s generally just because they both individually happened to win their rep.
Ingram was held without a sack in seven games for the Los Angeles Chargers last year, dealing with injuries throughout the season. He was also bothered by injuries the year before that, but played 16 games between the 2015 and 2018 seasons. He made the Pro Bowl in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and got the opportunity to work with Watt in the latter two years.
The trio of Watt, Highsmith, and Ingram has the makings of the most effective exterior pass rush that the Steelers have had in many years, perhaps even better than what Watt and Bud Dupree had for the past couple of seasons due to the added depth that Ingram brings.
Of course, Ingram is looking to show that he is still that Pro Bowl player. Highsmith still has a ton to prove, even though he had an excellent offseason. Starting off the season with a groin injury certainly doesn’t help.