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Hard Reset: Steelers Expect Defense to Look Different with T.J. Watt’s Return



Steelers OLB T.J. Watt

PITTSBURGH — The entire Pittsburgh Steelers defense is ready for one big change coming out of the team’s bye week — getting T.J. Watt back on the field.

No. 90, the Steelers’ All-Pro outside linebacker and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is expected to make his return to his familiar left outside linebacker spot when the Steelers take to the field at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.

The Steelers have had a tough go of things defensively without their top player in the lineup. Following a five-turnover, seven-sack performance with Watt in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers had just six turnovers in eight sacks in their next seven games.

The splash plays are the big thing missing from the Pittsburgh defense, and Watt’s return promises to bring them back. He tied an NFL record with 22.5 sacks in 2021 and led the NFL with 15 in 2020, but it’s not just about his solo contributions to the defense, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said.

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“He’s going to cause chaos wherever he is, whether it’s in the run game or the pass game,” Fitzpatrick said. “You know it’s going to be some kind dysfunction on the offensive side of the ball. The quarterback is alway weary of where he is. When he’s getting pressure on them, the quarterback’s not throwing the way they normally would or able to look down field the way they normally would. He’s T.J. Watt. He makes plays wherever he is. When you have a guy like that around the ball always as an outside linebacker or defensive end, it just creates chaos.”

Watt is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, despite not being one of the biggest or tallest or fastest. He brings an elite work ethic to the position that can help the others around, him as well.

“Obviously, he’s an MVP guy, but then the work he puts in is second to none,” slot corner Art Maulet said. “I remember last year, when I first got here, I was walking on eggshells because I was first learning the Nickel position. He was like, ‘Hey Art, I got a 100% run-pass key.’  In my head, I’m like, ain’t nothing 100%. I don’t believe this. Literally, after four plays, I’m like, I’m listening to him.”

The Steelers have quality players throughout their defense that have been playing well in Watt’s absence, from Fitzpatrick at safety to Cam Sutton at cornerback and Cam Heyward at defensive tackle.

But the team results have lagged. The Steelers leave the bye week ranked 23rd in points per game at 24.6, 17th in rushing yards per game at 117.9 and 31st in passing yards per game at 277.2.

Getting Watt back isn’t the only thing the Steelers will do over the break. They traded for cornerback William Jackson III and are also expected to get safety Damontae Kazee back from injury. Kazee has been out since the preseason finale, so the Steelers have a shot at getting their entire preseason defense together for the first time this season in Week 10.

“I can’t wait until he gets back,” Maulet said. “I can’t wait. And then 90 on that? Oh my God.”

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