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2022 South Side Questions: How Good Will This Defense Be Once Fully Healthy?

The Steelers are at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, informally known as the South Side facility, now into the regular season. It’s where they otherwise train all year round, and the facility that Burt Lauten insists everybody refers to by its full name.

There are still unsettled questions that need answering, even deep into the regular season. They entered the process with questions in the starting lineup, in scheme, and elsewhere, but new problems always arise that need to be resolved.

Even questions about who’s starting and when may not have satisfactory answers in their finality, as midseason changes are certainly quite possible, for some positions more than others. We’re also feeling out how the new coordinator posts—or posts in new contexts—end up playing out.

There’s never any shortage of questions when it comes to football, and we’ll be discussing them here on a daily basis for the community to “talk amongst yourselves”, as Linda Richman might say on Coffee Talk.

Question: How good will this defense be once it’s back to full strength?

The Steelers just won their second game of the season, and they did so with about half of their starting defense on the sidelines due to injuries. So the question is, what will they look like once they get back to full health—presumably after the bye week?

One player who won’t be back right after the by is DeMarvin Leal, the rookie defensive lineman who still must sit out at least another three games after being placed on the Reserve/Injured List, but it’s reasonable to believe that the rest of the notable injured defenders could be back right after the bye or sooner.

That includes T.J. Watt, the star pass rusher, who has missed the past five games with a strained pectoral muscle. The timeline that was anticipated tracks with him being ready by then, and giving him until after the bye should clear him past his cleanup procedure on his knee as well. An Instagram story last night has people optimistic that he is nearing a return.

Safety Damontae Kazee, though not a starter, could potentially come in and play a significant role in this defense as well. The team was even running three-safety looks in training camp and the preseason prior to his injury. He told reporters today that he hopes to be cleared to practice by this time next week. That would give him plenty of practice time to be ready to go after the bye.

So that’s a timeline of when they might potentially be healthy. But how will they play when they are? Another way of asking this question, to get right down to the root of it, is how much of an impact is Watt going to have coming back?

We have seen very clearly how much more potent the pass rush is when he’s on the field versus when he’s not, and that does affect all aspects of defense. But the secondary will be the same. The linebackers will be the same. The defensive line will be the same. And it’s largely the same as it was last year, as well.

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