As the old adage goes, “there is no ‘I’ in team”, and as the Steelers are about to find out, there exists no T or J either, at least for several games as their stud pass rusher rehabs the pectoral injury he suffered in Sunday’s thrilling 23-20 OT win over the defending AFC Champion Bengals.
In that game, Watt showed exactly why he was named NFL Defensive Player Of The Year last season, stuffing the stat sheet with a sack, an interception and plenty of highlight-worthy abuse of tackle La’el Collins, a big-ticket free agent of Cincy. His impact also cause ripple effects across the rest of the defense, as his counterpart at outside linebacker, Alex Highsmith, had a career game, registering three sacks, or half of last season’s total.
A great pass rush also pays dividends for the secondary, and make no mistake, the four interceptions registered by the defense of Joe Burrow were a direct byproduct of the consistent pressure created all game, as Pittsburgh collected seven sacks in total. Earlier today, the team’s new acquisition at cornerback, Levi Wallace, was quick to point out the fact that yes, obviously, the team is going to miss the presence of Watt, but he has confidence in the strength of the defense as a whole to overcome it.
“Losing a guy like that for however long, definitely, it’s noticeable, but I know the guys that are after him are ready to go,” Wallace said via the Steelers YouTube Channel. “I spent time with Malik(Reed) before he got here and just know the kind of player that he is, and Alex had a great game last week as well.”
Reed, whom the team acquired recently for a sixth-round pick from Denver, looks to be the first man up to the task of filling Watt’s enormous shoes, and he does boast some intrigue. After going undrafted out of Nevada in 2019, he played in 46 games, starting 34 of them due to injuries to both Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. He can get after the passer too, with 13 sacks to his name over the past two seasons, including eight in 2020.
Reed likely isn’t going to be tasked to be the be-all, end-all when it comes to replacing Watt, as it’s a group effort. The defense still has plenty of star power, including All-Pro defensive tackle Cam Heyward, as well as newly-minted AFC Defensive Player Of The Week Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had a field day against Cincinnati. And when it comes own to it, Wallace also noted it’s not going to change what he and his comrades in the secondary have to do.
“It’s our job to cover regardless, whether he’s in or out, it’s just what we have to do as corners as safeties, we have to cover.”
It’ll be that much more difficult minus Watt, as an additional split second provided to opposing QB’s can be the difference of a touchdown strike. An injury such as this from a pass rush perspective is very concerning, as the pec muscles are the bread and butter when it comes to extending and pushing off/disengaging from blockers. Think of performing a bench press exercise at the gym, and correlate that to the many times we’ve seen T.J. Watt or an Aaron Donald steamroll a blocker. However, a defense of this caliber should be able to overcome his loss, as he looks to return sometime in October.