Last Sunday marked the long-awaited return of OLB T.J. watt back to the football field after missing the last seven games with an injured pec that resulted in the reigning DPOY to be placed on IR after Pittsburgh’s Week 1 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals. Pittsburgh ended up going 1-6 without Watt, lacking that dominant pass rusher who could single-handedly wreak games and force opposing offenses to focus on him, opening things up for his teammates.
Watt helped Pittsburgh secure a win last Sunday against the Saints at home, but DC Teryl Austin said that Watt’s return was felt much more than his superb play on the football field.
“I clapped when he came out of the tunnel,” Austin said to the media Thursday on video from Chris Adamski’s Twitter page. “I was like, ‘hey, alright!’ It’s good to have him back. It affects you. When you don’t have one of your better players out, it’s obviously better for the team to have him back. It does. It boosts morale. It’s like you always want to have your best players out there fighting for you, fighting to get the win that you are trying to get. And so, it was good to have him out there and I think it was a big boost for all of us.”
Watt returned to play 79% of the defensive snaps against the Saints last Sunday and totaled four tackles and a QB hit in the contest. While he may have not gotten home to the QB himself, he aided the rest of the defense as New Orleans had to game plan around him and the issues he creates as a pass rusher. Watt allowed the defense to rush four more often than they were able to when he was out of the lineup and had to rely on blitzing to create pressure on the QB. This allowed the defense to drop more bodies into coverage making things difficult for Andy Dalton and the rest of the Saints’ passing game.
Running mate OLB Alex Highsmith also greatly benefitted from Watt’s return as he went back to being second on the priority list of pass rushers to focus on by the opposing offense. Highsmith won AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after posting five tackles, one for a loss, a pair of sacks and a forced fumble and six QB pressures. The stats with and without Watt in the lineup are evident for the Steelers defense as they are for Highsmith who has five sacks in two games with Watt on the field and 3.5 sacks in seven games without him.
As Austin mentioned, Watt’s presence wasn’t only felt by the team with his on-field production, but also with the energy and passion he brings to the game. Watt plays 100mph all the time and his energy is infectious to all who share the field with him. He is one of the best defenders in the NFL and has quickly become the face of the franchise after the retirement of QB Ben Roethlisberger last offseason. With Watt back in the lineup and the rest of the defense getting healthy, we could see Pittsburgh’s defense return to what we were expecting the 2022 to be after Week 1’s performance against the Bengals as the team looks to finish strong down the stretch.