It’s impossible to replace what star outside linebacker and reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt brings to the Pittsburgh Steelers at the outside linebacker position, that much is certain.
Somehow though, the Steelers will have to find a way to get by at that position for a few weeks starting on Sunday at the home opener at Acrisure Stadium against the New England Patriots as head coach Mike Tomlin unsurprisingly ruled out Watt for at least Sunday’s game following a pectoral injury suffered late in Sunday’s Week 1 23-20 win in overtime.
Despite being without Watt for the foreseeable future in 2022, Tomlin sees it as a challenge he’s excited for in preparing a cast of characters including Malik Reed and Jamir Jones to to get ready for the division of labor and the expectations of playing varsity-level football in Watt’s absence.
Speaking with reporters Tuesday during his weekly Tomlin Tuesday session, Tomlin stated the obvious that Watt can’t be replaced directly. However, the Steelers can redistribute the responsibilities collectively to produce a desired outcome, which will be the goal moving forward.
“You know, it’s gonna be a cast of characters, obviously, to fill his role,” Tomlin said to reporters Tuesday, according to video via the Steelers’ official YouTube page. “Malik [Reed] and Jamir [Jones] being the lead candidates. But when you lose a guy like him, it’s not about the guys that occupy his position of left outside linebacker. It’s about how we redistribute our responsibilities collectively to produce the collective outcome that we desire. Those guys are not gonna be T.J.
“It’s not realistic to think that they’re gonna be T.J., we expect them to be varsity and we’re gonna formulate a plan and redistribute responsibilities to lean on our strengths, to minimize our weaknesses, like we always do each and every week,” Tomlin added. “And so, we’re excited about doing that with them, and getting this group ready to play this week.”
Against the Bengals, Jones — claimed off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars following roster cuts — played 17 snaps in a reserve role Sunday, earning a grade of 77.5 from Pro Football focus, including a 70.7 against the run. Reed, whom the Steelers traded for after final roster cuts from the Denver Broncos, played 32 total snaps against Cincinnati and turned in a 64.1 overall grade, with a 65.8 against the run.
Those two will be counted on heavily to try and fill some of the void left behind due to Watt’s injury. Asking those two to come anywhere close to Watt’s production as a pass rusher is a major stretch. That said, the Steelers can try and scheme up ways to get the desired results defensively, even without Watt for an extended period.
Reed and Jones will be looked to exclusively at the position, as will a guy like Delontae Scott on the practice squad, as well as — presumably — some outside help. It’s a big challenge, but one Tomlin is ready to take on as the head coach of the Steelers.