PITTSBURGH — The Steelers completed their final practice before their final preseason game on Wednesday at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side, and as has been the case the entire preseason, No. 90 in gold did not take part in the team portion of the exercise.
Star Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt still does not have a contract extension, and with only a walkthrough on Thursday before the Steelers travel to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers in their preseason finale Friday night, it seems clear that Watt will not be joining the team on the field at Bank of America Stadium.
Watt’s stance of reporting but only partially participating has not been cause for alarm, according to the coaches and players that have spoken about his situation throughout training camp. But what does that total lack of a preseason mean for his readiness for the 2020?
“I think he’ll be ready, cardiovascularly,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said on Wednesday. “What I mean by that is this: the only way you get in dadgum hitting shape is you gotta hit. You can’t do nothing else. There’s nothing else you can do. You gotta hit to do that … You can’t duplicate that until you put the pads on, go out and play. And he hasn’t done that yet.”
There are other venues for players to get contact work in besides preseason games, but with training camp closed, the team will be focused on its Sept. 12 season opener against the Buffalo Bills when it returns to practice after the Carolina trip.
They have two weeks, so if Watt gets a deal done soon, he could get a large chunk of practice time in before the game, but Butler cautioned that it might not be of the physical variety.
“You’ve gotta do it in a practice when you have pads on,” he said. “How many times have we had pads on? There’s only a certain amount of times we can have pads on according to the collective bargaining agreement in the preseason. … We’ll see. We might have one practice. That’ll be it.”
Butler also hinted that Watt’s lack of participation in the preseason might cause the team to use him a little bit less than they ordinarily would at the start of the season, while he works his way back into what Butler described as hitting shape.
“If you don’t get the hitting in before the first game, then we’ve gotta be careful in how we use you,” he said. “Make sure that we keep him healthy as much as we can.”
The good news for the Steelers in that regard is that the signing of veteran Melvin Ingram, who has impressed since joining the team, puts less of an impetus on Watt playing his usual workload from the start.
Still, the more a team can wield one of the NFL’s top defenders, the better, and it’s clear that at this point, Watt’s “hold-in” is coming close to impacting the team’s chances on the field this season for the first time.