A year ago, T.J. Watt was about to become the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. Fresh off tying Michael Strahan’s official sack record, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Watt would break James Harrison’s Steelers’ sack record in 2022. But a year is an eternity in the NFL and while Watt remains one of the best defenders in football, this past season will be remembered by his injuries, not his impact plays.
A knee injury in the preseason finale. A torn pec late in Week One. A rib injury in Week 12. Watt went through the ringer this year and in speaking to Steelers.com’s Teresa Varley, admits he didn’t feel like himself until the very end of the year.
“It was probably the last two weeks of the season that I started to really feel like myself,” Watt told Varley. “I don’t know if I ever fully got back, but I was definitely climbing and starting to feel a lot better and I wasn’t coming out of games super sore. I was finally in football shape and getting back to taking chances and playing free and not being so worried about making mistakes.”
Watt was getting going right as the Steelers’ season was ending. A final push that ended on a high note, Pittsburgh 7-2 after the bye and winners of their final four, but they came up just short of getting all the help they needed to make the playoffs. In the final week, they needed the New York Jets to beat (or tie) the Miami Dolphins. Instead, the Jets lost on a field goal in the final seconds of a sloppy, ugly game.
Despite taking a low cut block in the preseason finale against Detroit, Watt suited up for Week One and played like his typical Watt self. In a dominant defensive performance, Watt recorded six tackles (three for a loss), with two pass deflections, one interception, and one sack as the Steelers’ defense hammered Joe Burrow. But late in the fourth quarter, Watt partially tore his pec, immediately knocking him out of the game. He told Varley he thought his pec was fully torn, which would’ve ended his season, but within 48 hours, realized he could avoid surgery and rehab instead. These injuries run in the family, J.J. and Derek both experiencing them, and T.J. leaned on their advice in his rehab. He returned after the bye week and gave a boost to a Steelers’ pass rush that looked lifeless without him.
Still, Watt was knocking off serious rust after suffering the first major injury of his NFL career. Three weeks later, he took a shot to the ribs late in a win over the Indianapolis Colts. Watt didn’t miss any more time but he briefly played with a protective jacket on to minimize the pain, though he soon took it off, saying it limited his range of motion too much.
To hear Watt tell it, it wasn’t until the final two games, AFC North battles against Baltimore and Cleveland, that he felt anything close to his normal self. It showed in his play. In Weeks 17 and 18, Watt notched 1.5 sacks with four quarterback hits, stats that don’t even do justice for how well he was playing. Pittsburgh’s defense started how it finished, bullying Browns’ QB Deshaun Watson in Week 18, sacking him seven times while picking him off twice.
Fully healthy for 2023, he and Alex Highsmith enter as one of the league’s top EDGE duos. Highsmith broke out with a 14.5 sack season and is in line to receive a monster payday this summer, though it won’t come close to the amount Watt received. Still, they and DL Cam Heyward and FS Minkah Fitzpatrick are the pillars of this defense and will be counted on to be at their best next season.