As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X-Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Here’s our X-Factor for Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.
X-FACTOR(S): T.J. WATT
Sometimes the X-Factor is more subtle, nuanced, and obscure. This is not one of those times. The X-Factor is T.J. Watt. He said it himself, he’s now healthy to impact games again. Now he has to do it.
And there’s little doubt he will. Watt has 12.5 in eight games and what’s effectively about seven, given the time he’s missed with in-game injuries this year. Pittsburgh could use his pass rush. In the first full game they played without him, Week 3 against the Bengals, Joe Burrow didn’t need to even wash his jersey. Pittsburgh’s sack streak ended that day, partly because Burrow didn’t have to throw. But when he did, he had all day. Zero sacks, zero QB hits.
This time around, Watt is playing. So is Alex Highsmith. Those two need to bring the heat. By this point, it’s a pattern, not a one-off. The Steelers aren’t blitzing this year. They’re above a 33% blitz rate in just one game all season: 43.6% against Geno Smith and the Seahawks. Burrow isn’t Smith.
Pittsburgh blitzed Cincinnati 31.6% of the time in the first meeting and that was without their key EDGE rushers, necessitating more blitzes to try and generate pressure. This week, expect that number to dip to around 20-25%, putting all the more pressure – literally – on Watt.
Unfortunately, Watt won’t get the pleasure of facing Bobby Hart like he did in years past, an overwhelmingly positive matchup for Watt and a guy he genuinely seemed to dislike. Instead, he’ll face free agent pickup Riley Reiff, who has seemed to play well enough for them. But it’s still a matchup Watt can win because he’s…T.J. Watt. He can win against anyone.
The Steelers need Watt this week. Maybe more than any other this season. Pressure just hasn’t been good or consistent enough, and it goes into the tank when #90 is on the field. The numbers are, frankly, jarring.
Pressure Rate With Watt On The Field: 29.4%
Pressure Rate Without Watt On The Field: 19.9%
A near-10% difference of pressure rate. And to be clear, those are team pressures, not just what Watt did. His presence alone, and obviously he’s responsible for a good chunk of pressure (second on the team only behind Cam Heyward and only because he’s been hurt) but because he commands and demands so much offensive attention to open up others.
His presence alone will do that Sunday afternoon. But Watt’s play needs to go beyond that. This game probably requires a sack/forced fumble type of play, a chance to win the turnover battle in what’s likely to be a close, AFC North contest. They always are.