There is no replacing a player like T.J. Watt, who is universally regarded as one of the greatest players in football today. One could certainly take issue with the manner in which the Pittsburgh Steelers went about insulating themselves against injury to their star player prior to the start of this season, but any realistic option they could have carried out wouldn’t have sufficiently satisfied.
The injury caused the coaching staff to get creative and expanded the use of a 3-3-5 nickel package, featuring rookie third-round defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal as a third lineman. Gradually, they also began to stand him up.
Leal played 96 defensive snaps for the Steelers through the first five games of the season before suffering an injury in practice the following week that required him to have surgery and which landed him on the Reserve/Injured List. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin earlier this week discussed the rookie’s early role in light of Watt’s injury.
“He was starting to grow, and this kind of slows it down”, he said of Leal via the team’s website. “He wasn’t gonna replace T.J., but he did give us some really good things, and he got a chance because of T.J.’s injury and us moving things around. We got a chance to probably see him a little more than we anticipated early, but the returns were good. Now we’ve just got to get him healthy again”.
Leal has previously implied that he intends to return this season, and Austin’s final remark seems to lean in that direction as well. Because his injury came at the end of a work week and he was quickly placed on the Reserve/Injured List, and because it occurred in a closed practice, head coach Mike Tomlin never had to disclose much in terms of the nature and severity of the injury.
Truth be told, the Steelers did come into this season with depth along the defensive line, although the quality of that depth is left to the eye of the beholder. Since Leal’s injury, it has provided second-year lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk to get back into the rotation. He had been inactive for the first five games, partially due to himself recovering from an injury suffered in August.
And he has been playing, seeing 65 snaps over the course of the past three games, translating into five tackles in that time. He had to play even more last week because of the absence of Larry Ogunjobi, who has been nursing a back injury.
With Leal, however, we are talking about a player that the organization hopes is a future starter, perhaps as early as 2023. It would be very beneficial if they are able to get him back into the fold and back onto the field at the end of last season.
One hopes that the team’s need to get him on the field won’t be a factor, however. Watt is expected to be activated from the Reserve/Injured List next week in time for the team’s next game, and they certainly hope to have him available for the finale nine-plus contests of the 2022 season, Leal’s development be damned if it comes down to it.