Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt had what probably stands as the least productive game of his professional career in Week 16 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
In that game, Watt, who was reportedly bothered by cracked ribs going into Arrowhead Stadium, recorded just one tackle. The Steelers as a team failed to find a way to pressure Patrick Mahomes, and Pittsburgh was gashed on the ground and through the air in a 26-point loss.
With the Steelers headed back to Arrowhead for the AFC Wild Card playoff against the Chiefs, Watt said he’s feeling better now than three weeks ago, so that won’t be an issue this time around.
“I think it was a matter of how my body was feeling going into that game,” Watt said. “I know I wasn’t able to play as many snaps and be as effective as I wanted to be. I feel better where I am today than I was going into that game.”
But there was another issue at play. After Kansas City jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter, Andy Reid was able to call a balanced attack that kept the Steelers’ defense from really getting after Mahomes.
“It’s pretty obvious that once an offense gets up by 14, 21 points, whatever it is, that they can pretty much do whatever they want to do, especially run the ball, drain the clock, all that stuff and limit the opportunities for splash plays, which is what we specifically here in Pittsburgh strive for,” Watt said.
That hasn’t just been an issue against the Chiefs this season. The Steelers also fell into big holes in games against Cincinnati, the Los Angeles Chargers and Minnesota Vikings.
It’s also been a problem in each of the Steelers’ last two playoff games, against Jacksonville in 2018 and Cleveland in 2020, and is a big part of the reason Watt enters play on Sunday with zero career postseason sacks.
He said he’s not bothered by not having a playoff sack already, but that avoiding that type of lopsided early deficit will be one of the big keys for a Steelers victory — and it’s not just that the offense has started games slowly, either.
“A lot of the times, it’s on us from not stopping the offense, getting those three and outs, getting off the field,” Watt said. “The best defenses spend a lot of time on the bench. It starts with getting off the field and not having the sustained drives they were able to have, specifically early in the game, against them the first time.”
When the Chiefs struggled in the early part of the season, it was because their porous defense let them get behind early and Mahomes had to spend too much time coming from behind.
The Kansas City defense has improved dramatically since then, especially since landing Melvin Ingram in a trade from Pittsburgh. So it won’t be an easy task for the Pittsburgh offense to build an early lead. The always raucous Arrowhead crowd will likely have something to say about that, too.
“There’s going to be a storm,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “You have to weather it. You hope that you are able to produce a little bit of storm for them, too.”
That remains the goal and a near-necessity for Pittsburgh to have any shot at silencing doubters and pulling off a big upset against the Chiefs.