PITTSBURGH — T.J. Watt will be back.
He said as much himself in a social media post that was a de facto announcement that Watt does not intend to miss all or even most of the 2022 season after suffered a pectoral injury in Sunday’s season opener at Cincinnati.
— TJ Watt (@_TJWatt) September 13, 2022
It seems more likely that Watt will miss at least six weeks and closer to two months. Nov. 13 against the New Orleans Saints, a home game the week after the Steelers’ bye looks to be a strong possibility.
Regardless, at least for the next month or two, the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to be without their all-everything outside linebacker, and a month or two without the best defensive player in football is more than enough to sink the Steelers’ 2022 season if they don’t have a solid replacement plan.
“It’s the National Football League,” said offensive tackle Dan Moore. “Injuries happen. Like Coach Tomlin says, it’s the next guy up. We expect the next guy to come in and produce.”
So who is the next man up? That’s both a simple answer and a complex one.
The easy answer is that Malik Reed will start at left outside linebacker on Sunday against the New England Patriots and for the entire foreseeable time that Watt will be out.
Steelers general manager Omar Khan deserves credit for taking an honest look at his linebacker depth on the verge of the regular season and deciding it wasn’t good enough. He went out and found Reed for almost nothing, trading a 2023 sixth-round pick and getting Reed and a 2023 seventh-rounder back. With the Broncos looking like they may struggle, that might not even be a big drop. Then to cap it off, the Steelers got Reed to take a pay cut.
Reed can play. Over the last three seasons with the Broncos, he was nominally the No. 3 outside linebacker, but thanks to a number of injuries, he almost always turned into a regular starter. He started eight games in 2019 and 13 in each of the last two seasons.
Reed is a bit undersized for the outside linebacker position, checking in a t 6-foot-2, 235 pounds. But he uses his speed and bend off the edge to make life miserable for tackles. In his career, he has a pressure every 13.2 pass-rush snaps. Alex Highsmith, his new running parter, has one every 11.8 snaps. So, not quite as good, but far from a slouch.
“His resume speaks for itself,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “That’s why we went out and acquired him. He’s a very, very credible NFL player and we expect him to play varsity ball for us.”
IN SEACH OF DEPTH
Reed is only part of the puzzle, though. The Steelers will have to replace the depth that he provided. The most that Watt has ever played was 88% of the team’s defensive snaps, and Reed is, to put it politely, not Watt. So figure at least 20% of the time there’s going to need to be someone to fill in for him and Highsmith.
At least for this week, that player will largely be Jamir Jones. Jones was an interesting player with the Steelers a year ago. He joined the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent in 2020. He was cut before ever getting to training camp, and never re-signed with another team.
The Steelers had his brother, tackle Jarron Jones, on their practice squad, and gave the younger member of the Jones family a shot in 2021, when he hadn’t caught on elsewhere.
Jamir Jones made such an impression that he not only made the team’s 53-man roster, beating out veteran Cassius Marsh and sixth-round draft pick Quincy Roche, but when Watt was injured in second week of the 2021 season, Jones was the first player in off the bench.
When the Steelers got healthy, they tried to sneak Jones through waivers and failed. When he became available again at the end of training camp this year, they snapped him right back up.
“We had a good experience with him last time,” Tomlin said. “You’ve got to make decisions week in and week out in an effort to field the very best group for that specific task, and sometimes young guys and guys on the fringe if you will get lost in the shuffle. Somebody claimed him and we had to move on. We had an opportunity to reconnect and usually, you guys know us, we will do repeat business if it’s a good relationship. So, he’s one of those guys. He’s back here for a second time and usually they’re back here for a second time because they have some things that we value, not only in terms of talent, but in approach to business that are in line with our mantra.”
The Steelers will also look for additional help. Delontae Scott is in his second season on the Steelers practice squad and seems like a sure bet to be called up to play this week. Ryan Anderson, a former Washington Redskins second-round pick, was added to the practice squad on Tuesday.
There will undoubtedly be more tire-kicking as the Steelers see if another Reed-like player becomes available. There are also several veterans that remain free agents that could provide some useful depth.
That should take care of who replaced Watt in the lineup and in the roster, but that’s not all the Steelers will be doing. After all, Reed is not Watt.
MAKING IT WORK WITHOUT WATT
When Tomlin says “next man up,” he means he expects the next player to have the same level of professionalism, dedication and effort that the starter brings to the table. He doesn’t expect them to have the same kind of ability of the same kind of impact on the game. That would be unreasonable. So the Steelers are going to have to do things a little bit differently going forward. We saw a preview of that in the end of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Early in the game, the Steelers’ four-man rush of Watt, Highsmith, Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi was torturing the Bengals’ offensive line. Three of the team’s four early sacks came with just four-man pressure.
Later in the game, without Watt and Heyward, who also left the game with an injury (he’s fine), the team stopped getting consistent pressure. It’s no surprise that two of the Bengals’ best drives of the day came on the final drive of regulation and the first drive of overtime when Evan McPherson missed a field goal.
On the next Cincinnati drive, after Chris Boswell doinked his game-winner attempt, the Steelers changed tactics and dialed up a blitz. Slot corner Art Maulet rushed the passer just five time all day. Three of them resulted in pressure of Burrow. The last one was a lightning-quick strip sack that knocked the Bengals out of field goal range and set up Mitch Trubisky’s final game-winning drive.
That’s just a very small example of how while Reed will replace Watt on the field, the job of replacing his production will fall to almost the entire Steelers defensive unit.
“There’s going to be a cast of characters, obviously, to fill his role,” Tomlin said. “When you lose a guy like him, it’s not about the guys that occupy his position of left outside linebacker, it’s about how we redistribute our responsibilities collectively to produce the collective outcome that we desire. Those guys are not going to be T.J. It’s not realistic to think that they’re going to be T.J., but we expect them to be varsity.
“We’re going to formulate a plan to redistribute responsibilities to lean on our strengths and to minimize our weaknesses, like we always do each and every week. So, we’re excited about doing that with them and getting this group ready to play this week.”
Of course, just because the Steelers have a plan doesn’t mean it will work. The team is 0-4 in games it has played without Watt, and has allowed 7.6 points per game more without him in the lineup than with him.
The final piece of the puzzle when it comes to replacing Watt has nothing to do with his play at all. Watt is one of the team’s defensive captain, but more importantly than that, he has set the personality of the unit. Watt is not a big talker. He’s workmanlike. He doesn’t complain, even when he would be right to. Like Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and James Harrison before him, he is the embodiment of the Pittsburgh defense.
That’s different than just leadership, which Heyward can provides in spades. It’s the ability to play 100 snaps in the first game of the season, or play through a groin injury, or fight through a hold, and have the steel-eyed determination of No. 90 be the example of professionalism, hard work and dedication for the rest of the defense to hold itself to.
“Having T.J. out there definitely benefits us,” Heyward said. “He’s a leader. He’s the Defensive Player of the Year. However long it takes, other guys have to step up. Alex stepped up pretty good (Sunday). Malik and Jamir are coming along. We had to do some different stuff out there. But we’ll rally around him, and we he gets back, we’ll be ready”
Luckily, the Steelers have some other options there. Minkah Fitzpatrick, who might be making his own Defensive Player of the Year case based on Week 1, can be that player. So can been-there, done-that vets like Myles Jack and Larry Ogunjobi. Devin Bush, in his fourth season as starter, is the youngest member of the Steelers’ starting 11 on defense.
While losing a player like Watt is a blow, the Steelers have the players and the personalities to not suffer a downturn without their leader. They also know that when he says he’ll be back, he means it,
“I’m just praying that everything is going to be all right,” Highsmith said. “He’s a guy that, well, he’ll be back for sure.”