The Pittsburgh Steelers were surprise Week 1 winners over the Cincinnati Bengals, but that win came with a price, as All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt will miss extended time with a pectoral injury.
Our SN Debate for today is, do you feel better or worse about the Steelers’ 2022 prospects after the first week of the season.
ALAN SAUNDERS, ARGUING BETTER
I thought the Steelers chances of winning their season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals were a bit understated going into Week 1, but if you had told me they’d lose Najee Harris, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt in the game, they wouldn’t be able to run the ball and Mitch Trubisky wasn’t very accurate, I’d have assumed that was a three-touchdown loss.
That the Steelers are 1-0 today is remarkable. The injuries sustained in that game will be painful, but they alone shouldn’t dampen optimism for the course of the 2022 season.
All offseason, we heard about how difficult the Steelers’ early-season schedule was. They just won the most difficult game in the stretch, a season opener at the No. 1 team in the AFC, and did it with the equivalent of both hands tied behind their backs.
They will now face a six or so week stretch of playing without Watt and with a likely less than 100% Harris. But guess what? They just beat the Bengals on the road without them. And these New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns without Deshaun Watson, and New York Jets are not the Bengals.
The Steelers will probably lose in Buffalo. But I’d have said that about Cincinnati. I’d have said that last year in Buffalo. They won both of those, didn’t they?
If Watt misses six games, the Steelers probably between 2-4 and 4-2. If Watt was playing in those games, they’d … probably go between 2-4 and 4-2. He’s a great player, but there are two good teams and four at-best mediocre ones on the upcoming docket.
Projections are one thing. Results are another, and a road AFC North win over the reigning champion is about as good of a result as you can get. Even if the Steelers would win one more game with Watt over the upcoming stretch, it wouldn’t have the same impact as the game they just one.
They also have the capability to be a lot better on offense than the team we saw last Sunday. Trubisky, in particular, was less accurate than we saw in the preseason. They didn’t get George Pickens involved in the offense. Pat Freiermuth was quiet until late in the game.
The Steelers can be better than they were in Cincinnati. And they’ll get healthy again. That would make them a legitimate contender to win the division, which isn’t anything I thought I’d be saying a week ago.
HUNTER HOMISTEK, ARGUING WORSE
T.J. Watt will miss seven-ish games and return in time to make an impact for the Steelers some time in November. Najee Harris will play Week 2 against the Patriots.
We know this –– but to pretend any of it is good news is preposterous. The Steelers will suffer because of these injuries.
Harris’ injury is one thing. After a productive rookie season, Harris looked primed to break out in Year 2. Now, that’s uncertain. (No, I’m not salty I drafted him at No. 9 overall in my fantasy draft. Not at all. Why would you think that?!)
He battled through a Lisfranc injury during training camp, then it flared up near the end of regulation Week 1 against the Bengals. It looked bad. Clearly, the foot is causing Harris serious pain, even if the doctors say he can play vs. the Patriots in Week 2.
That’s almost more concerning.
At this point, it seems more likely this injury will linger, limiting Harris and negating his effectiveness. Sure, he can clear the injury report, but he’s playing at, what, 75 percent? Max? Is that really good for the Steelers?
That’s to say nothing of the offensive line, which generated precisely zero push in the running game anyway. It might not matter if prime Barry Sanders was in the backfield, so let’s say Harris’ injury actually can be overcome.
Playing .500 football without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year would be an absolute blessing for the Steelers.
It would also fly directly in the face of history. Watt has missed four games as a Pittsburgh Steeler since 2017. They lost all four.
He’s played less than 50 percent of the defensive snaps in another four games. The Steelers are 1-2-1 in those, the sole victory being a 26-9 win over the Vikings in Week 2 of 2017 –– Watt’s second game as a professional.
The tie came against the lowly Lions last season. You probably remember that game (and wish you didn’t).
Watt isn’t just another guy. He’s a guy who fundamentally changes the dynamic of this defense. He impacts games at every level, sacking the quarterback, tackling running backs for a loss, batting down passes, intercepting passes, causing fumbles, etc. etc. etc.
Furthermore, he changes how offenses prepare. Every team that faces the Steelers needs to game plan to stop Watt. That takes time, energy, and strategy.
Malik Reed has played well thus far in his NFL career, but do you think he’s keeping defensive coordinators up at night? Are teams investing valuable resources into stopping him? Will teams specifically plan to avoid him on gameday?
The good news for the Steelers is they still boast two All-Pro caliber players on defense in Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick. But without Watt flying in off the edge and wreaking havoc, that team becomes just a little less scary.
And with the offense’s putrid display in Week 1, they need all the terror on defense they can get. Even with five forced turnovers and seven sacks, the Steelers barely squeaked out a win.
They’ll be in more close games this year, too. Guaranteed. And without Watt, the odds of those ones tipping in the Steelers’ favor plummet.
This looked like a 9-8 football team at best heading into the season. A playoff berth was possible, but it always felt like the Steelers might need a lucky break or two to make it. They’ll need to win close games and steal some games they maybe shouldn’t have won.
How can you possibly feel better about that mission now with Watt missing significant time?
YOU PICK THE WINNER
Who made the better argument?
- Alan Saunders, arguing better (50%, 8 Votes)
- Hunter Homistek, arguing worse (50%, 8 Votes)
Total Voters: 16
Alan Saunders defeated Cale Berger in our last debate, in arguing that the Steelers should not immediately seek to trade Mason Rudolph, 61-39.