It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Steelers have missed star outside linebacker T.J. Watt dearly. Watt, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who injured his pec towards the end of regulation in Pittsburgh’s wild Week 1 win and went on IR shortly after, might not be out for much longer, though. Jason La Canfora wrote in the Washington Post that Watt could be back as soon as Week 6 when the Steelers play host to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“There is hope in that organization that T.J. Watt, the reigning defensive player of the year, could be back in two weeks to face Tampa — the Steelers have never won with him injured — and I’m told he continues to push to return as soon as possible,” La Canfora writes.
When Watt was originally placed on IR, the assumed timeline was a six-week recovery, meaning his return would likely come October 30 against the Philadelphia Eagles. If he was to play against the Bucs, he would beat that timeline by a full two weeks and miss just four games, which is the minimum a player must miss after being placed on IR. It would be a heck of a recovery for Watt, and a huge boost for a Steelers team that’s had a pretty non-existent pass rush with him on the sidelines.
Against the Patriots, Watt’s first game out, the Steelers didn’t log a single sack. In Week 3 against Cleveland, the pass rush got home twice, but they could only get to Zach Wilson (playing behind an offensive line rife with backups) once. They put pressure on Wilson, but his mobility and the Steelers’ inability to finish tackles led to him being able to escape and get the ball out before being brought down.
With Watt, the pass rush will be better. Teams have to devote significant resources to him, and his presence alone will open things up even more for Alex Highsmith (currently the NFL sack leader with 5.5) and Cameron Heyward, whose production has been virtually non-existent with Watt sidelined.
As La Canfora noted, the Steelers have never won without Watt. It’s not as if Watt is going to come in and this team is going to be unbeatable, but the defense is significantly better when he’s on the field. Just look at the impact he had against the Bengals. He tipped a two passes and had an interception, a sack, and three tackles for a loss. He’s a legitimate difference-maker, and the sooner he comes back, the better the chances are for the Steelers to put together a respectable season.
There’s also no guarantee Watt will be the same player when he first gets back, but he’s still T.J. Watt. Watt at 70% better is better than most guys at 100%. It’s still going to be an uphill battle for the Steelers to be competitive this year. The door might be closed already. But if Watt only misses one more game, there’s at least a glimmer of hope on the horizon.