It was silly to think the Steelers could march on from the loss of T.J. Watt without missing a beat.
It’s true Alex Highsmith –– not Watt –– led the team in sacks in Week 1, registering three in the team’s 23-20 overtime victory over the Bengals.
It’s also true the Steelers boast All-Pro caliber talent along the defensive line (Cam Heyward) and in the secondary (Minkah Fitzpatrick).
But there’s only one T.J. Watt.
And the Steelers just learned that life without him might be a little shaky in 2022.
“It wasn’t good enough,” Steelers captain Cam Heyward said of the defense’s performance after their Week 2 17-14 loss to the Patriots at Acrisure Stadium. “I don’t think a guy’s going to tell you it was.”
Let’s put Heyward’s theory to the test.
Was it good enough, Larry Ogunjobi?
“We gotta flush this one, learn from this one, move on, prepare, and find a way to win next week,” Ogunjobi said.
What about you, Malik Reed? Think the pass rush was up to the standard without Watt?
“It’s four guys rushing the passer, so it’s four as one,” Reed said. “So we take it all on ourselves and we just know that we got to do a better job.”
The Steelers know their performance wasn’t good enough. Despite this Patriots team not being quite as fearsome as some of the New England squads of years past, it’s still Bill Belichick and that culture of unprecedented winning on the opposite sideline.
With or without Watt, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knew this one would be tough.
“I thought that New England would do a good job of minimizing that component of the game [the pass rush] by running the football, by rhythm throws and things of that nature,” Tomlin said in his post-game presser. “So I didn’t necessarily go into this game thinking it was going to be a seven-sack type game. It wasn’t going to unfold that way. Their style of play wasn’t going to allow that to happen.”
It wasn’t a seven-sack game. Tomlin is correct. In fact, it wasn’t even a one-sack game. After a ridiculous seven-sack outing in Week 1, the Steelers got blanked in Week 2.
That doesn’t happen often with this squad. The Steelers had their NFL-record 75-game streak with a sack snapped last season in a home loss to the Bengals. They were shut out again later in the year by the Vikings. Unsurprisingly, the Steelers lost that game, too.
The common denominator in those two contests?
Watt missed the entire Bengals game with a groin injury. He returned the following week to register two sacks against the Packers but was inactive once again later in the year, missing Week 11 vs. the Chargers.
He healed up for Week 12, well before the Steelers’ Week 14 showdown with the Vikings –– but left the game vs. Minnesota in the second quarter and did not return.
In football, we like to search for hidden details. We like to dive into advanced analytics and rewatch film to catch something no one else can see. We may even dissect a coach’s or a player’s words while we wonder, “OK, what are they really trying to say?”
But there’s no mystery here. There is nothing to consider.
The Steelers need Watt on the football field.
That’s it. Don’t overthink this.
History backs it up, as the Steelers are now 0-5 in games he misses outright. They’re 1-2-1 in games he leaves early, too.
When Watt plays less than 50 percent of the defensive snaps, the team bats .167.
That might be good enough to crack the Pirates’ starting lineup, but it’s nowhere near the standard of Pittsburgh Steelers football.
He’s an absolute game-changer, and as impressive as a 22.5-sack season or a Defensive Player of the Year Award may be, nothing showcases Watt’s impact quite like the team’s play in his absence.
They just don’t get it done without No. 90 on the field. But it’s only Week 2, and they need to. There’s a long season ahead, beginning in just a few days with a Thursday Night Football showdown against the division-rival Browns.
The Steelers remain positive.
That history without Watt doesn’t look great –– but they feel they’re on the cusp of figuring out how to win without him.
“We didn’t ultimately get there for the sack, but we were close,” Reed said. “[We] drew a few holding penalties and, you know, got some hits on the quarterback. We’re right there, man. It’s the second game. We got a lot more ball to be played, and we’re going to be better.
“It’s on us. We have to figure that out while he’s working his way back to the field. And I got all the confidence in the world that we will work back and we will be ready –– even when he comes back.”
Love the optimism, Mr. Reed.
Even if there’s a –– I don’t know –– 83.3 percent chance it’s misguided.