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It is time for T.J. Watt to step up and be the transcendent player the Steelers’ defense needs

Second-year outside linebacker T.J. Watt needs to snap out of his early-season slump and become the difference-maker for the Steelers’ struggling defense.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The major concern for the Steelers this past offseason was how they were going to replace inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and his play-making and difference-making abilities.

I spent a good portion of the spring and summer saying the solution was in-house and at a slightly different position—outside linebacker.

I was referring to T.J. Watt, the second-year player out of Wisconsin, who burst onto the scene in 2017 and did so well—52 tackles, seven sacks, seven passes defensed and one interception—he forced the season-long benching (and legacy-tarnishing behavior) of James Harrison.

What every defense needs is a play-maker, a disrupter, someone opposing offensive coordinators must focus on and prepare for. Think Troy Polamalu from about 2004-2010. Think Harrison from 2008-2011.

Despite his troubles with injuries during the course of his three-plus years in the NFL, Shazier was developing into that kind of defender. Unfortunately, he suffered the ultimate injury last December in Cincinnati, leaving Pittsburgh’s defense without anyone for opponents to prepare for.

But with Watt’s rookie season a clear success, that seemed like a temporary problem for Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler, even as they searched for a solution in free agency and the draft.

And after Watt’s first game of his sophomore season, one in which he tallied three sacks and a game-saving (or, at least, loss-saving) field goal block at the end of overtime in a Week-1 tie with the Browns on September 9, it looked as if 2018 could truly be No. 90’s coming-out party. In-fact, that performance put Watt in the spotlight as never before, when the league named him the AFC Defensive Player of the Week.

Unfortunately, instead of continuing his progression into the upper-echelon of young outside linebackers, Watt has regressed—or at least disappeared—over the past three weeks, registering eight tackles, zero sacks, zero interceptions and zero passes defensed.

In other words, Watt has looked about as lifeless and hopeless as everyone else on a Steelers’ defense that has yielded a combined 95 points over the past three games in-which Pittsburgh has gone 1-2.

The Steelers are now looking for answers, especially on defense, and may even turn to Matthew Thomas, the undrafted rookie inside linebacker out of Florida State, who may finally see some significant playing-time against the Falcons this Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

In the first four preseason games of his young career, Thomas showed explosiveness and difference-making ability. But through the first 17 regular season games of his professional football career, Watt showed similar attributes and did so with such conviction, it was hard to doubt he was the real deal.

But after three games in-which he has done next to nothing, doubt is beginning to creep in.

Has Watt’s play dropped off because of his switch from right outside linebacker over to the left side as some have suggested? If that is the case, then Watt isn’t as special as I thought. After all, the truly special talents can excel just about anywhere you put them. And even if their statistics slip, their presence never does.

Watt’s presence since Week 1 has been akin to the child on the side of the proverbial milk carton.

Maybe Watt’s struggles over the past few weeks are a product of the league adjusting to him. Maybe he’s adjusting to new responsibilities. Or maybe it’s just a good old-fashioned sophomore slump.

Hopefully, this period of lack for Watt is just a small blip on the screen of what will ultimately become an extraordinary career.

If that is the case, we can only hope Watt’s struggles don’t last much longer. If he is going to be a superstar, he needs to snap out of it sooner rather than later, for the sake of the Steelers and their current plight.

The Steelers’ defense still needs a new difference-maker and play-maker, and there’s still time for T.J. Watt to be that kind of player.