The Pittsburgh Steelers’ pass rush felt as if it was in a state of shellshock in the absence of star pass rusher T.J. Watt, who injured his pectoral muscle in the first week of the season. Entering Sunday’s game, they had only managed five sacks in the ensuing six.
But they did manage to rack up three sacks in their most recent outing against the Philadelphia Eagles, albeit in a loss. And Watt appears to be right around the corner, having begun to practice last week. The expectation is that he will be available after the bye, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has seen gradual improvement in the pass rush in recent week, to which they now add a true difference maker.
“I think a lot of guys stepped up in the absence of T.J.”, he told reporters yesterday via the team’s YouTube channel. “It’s hard to replace a guy like him, so obviously you’re not expecting the same amount of splash out of the guys that are filling in for him, but you we do expect them to make plays. We do expect them to go out there and create chaos and havoc in the backfield, and we had some of that. So T.J. coming back is gonna be big, paired with those guys that filled him for him while he was gone”.
Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward recorded his third sack of the season on Sunday, bringing down Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The primary replacement for Watt, Malik Reed, notched his first sack of the year as well, just as Watt is set to return. The third sack came from Carlos Davis, called up from the practice squad for the game.
Of the now eight sacks that the Steelers have registered in their past seven games, 3.5 came from Alex Highsmith, the third-year veteran who has been the team’s primary source of pressure since Watt went down.
While it’s easy to say that he hasn’t done enough, we also have to consider the fact that he hasn’t even had himself to line up across from as Watt does. He has been playing with Reed and Jamir Jones and Ryan Anderson.
There have been some positive signs with respect to the direction the pass rush has taken in recent weeks, not that it’s anything to brag about. There’s no doubt that Watt completely transforms this unit and makes it much more than the sum of its parts.