The Pittsburgh Steelers are set to take on Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, coming off an impressive victory in Cincinnati. Despite rising to the occasion, the win came at a huge price when All-Pro defender T.J. Watt went down with a pectoral injury. As Mike Tomlin’s squad moves forward, the Steelers’ head coach touched on the subject on his show today. In particular, Watt’s absence and what it means for the rest of the team, in particular, those that will play in his place.
“You pivot,” he told host Bob Pompeani. “The reality is that the guy taking his place on the field is not going to be T.J. [Watt]. You’ve got to redistribute your strengths elsewhere. We expect quality, varsity play from whoever is playing for him. But to expect T.J.-like plays, no we don’t. Structurally, schematically, we’re just going to put ourselves in a position to highlight the talents of other players in an effort to produce a similar collective outcome.”
As Tomlin states, replacing a talent the caliber of Watt is impossible at this stage of the year. This is where a team’s depth, coaching, and scheme come into play. Many teams would have their whole season ruined by losing a player such as Watt. During Tomlin’s time, though, the Steelers had some of the best depth of any team.
As far as the scheme goes, fans shouldn’t expect a drop off from their defensive approach. For example, last week against the Bengals, the Steelers blitzed Joe Burrow seven times. All things considered, that number will likely stay in the same range. The focus will now turn to Alex Highsmith as well, in terms of the drop off in production in Watt’s absence. In last Sunday’s game, Highsmith posted six pressures and nine total tackles. Look for Highsmith’s production to also trend up. The biggest question mark will be how Malik Reed performs. Will the Patriots zero in on the former Denver Bronco? Against the Patriots in 2020, Willis notched two tackles for a loss and five tackles. To be fair, this is a different offense, notably because Josh McDaniels isn’t calling the offense.
Big picture wise, the Steelers’ star players will find other ways to make plays. The rest of their core will step up, and as anyone who’s familiar with Pittsburgh knows, it’s next man up.