PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers have dealt with a bit of uncertainty at their outside linebacker position in the week leading up to the season opener against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Star left outside backer T.J. Watt practiced in full for the first time this season on Wednesday after a soft holdout that saw him perform only individual work through the training camp and preseason.
Watt signed a monster contract on Thursday, assuring that he will play in Sunday’s game, but how ready he will be for a full workload is up in the air. Head coach Mike Tomlin has expressed confidence in Watt’s ability to cope with the lack of practice contact as an elite player, while defensive coordinator Keith Butler emphasized the importance of being in “hitting shape” when it comes to playing in an NFL game.
“I don’t have any reservations about his participation,” Tomlin said Friday. “I expect him to be T.J. Watt.”
Even with Tomlin’s more-optimistic outlook, it’s reasonable to expect that Watt will not play his customary amount in Buffalo on Sunday. That normally wouldn’t be a big deal, but there is uncertainly at right outside linebacker, as well.
Starter Alex Highsmith was bothered by a groin injury late in training camp and was limited in practice on Wednesday and did not participate at all on Thursday. He returned to work in the individual practice period on Thursday, and Tomlin said immediately after practice that his availability has yet to be determined.
That combination of events has made one move the Steelers made this offseason seem awfully valuable: the acquisition of veteran edge rusher Melvin Ingram.
“Melvin Ingram, it’s good to have him,” deadpanned Butler on Thursday.
“No reservations about Melvin’s capabilities as an outside linebacker or his preparedness in terms of being able to execute our football,” Tomlin added.
And Watt’s absence helped prepare Ingram for extensive use. With the star on the sidelines, No. 8 has took the vast majority of first-team reps throughout training camp.
“One man’s misfortune or circumstances are another man’s opportunity, and the things that are going on with T.J. have really given him an opportunity to acclimate himself to what it is we’re doing, but also do it within the first group and get reps with that group,” Tomlin said. “I’m really excited about his preparedness.”
Of course, with issues at both outside linebacker spots, Ingram can’t fill both, even though he’s the primary backup at both positions according to the team’s depth chart.
It seems likely there will be a need for a fourth player to see some game action, and that will be first-year player Jamir Jones. Jones joined the Steelers after being released early in camp last season by the Houston Texans and spending 2020 out of football, but a stellar preseason performance, leading the team in sacks, helped carve out a roster spot for the Note Dame grad.
But it’s a different thing entirely to win a job in the preseason compare to doing it in an NFL game in Week 1. If the Steelers do have to use Jones, they’ll do so strategically.
“We’re not gonna stress him too bad mentally,” Butler said. “We’ll try to get him to where he can play and play fast. We’ll see with him.
“Hopefully, we’ll have the (other) outside guys ready to play.”