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T.J. Watt is the new straw that stirs the Pittsburgh Steelers’ drink

With T.J. Watt in the lineup, the Steelers seemed at least capable of putting up a fight. Without him, they’ve looked like one of the worst teams in the NFL. I think it’s safe to say who the new face of the Steelers franchise has become.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

“The Steelers will go as far as Ben Roethlisberger can take them.”

That used to be the popular refrain when discussing the Steelers and their prospects for an upcoming game or season.

That actually may still be the case, but only in the most negative sense because Roethlisberger doesn’t appear to be capable of taking the Steelers very far these days.

Now, can this happen if Roethlisberger quickly learns Matt Canada’s offense? Perhaps. Can he do it if the offensive line eventually becomes a cohesive unit that affords the 39-year old great protection? Maybe. Can Roethlisberger be more effective if that same unit starts to open up holes for rookie running back Najee Harris, a youngster who appears to be a decent offensive line away from being a lethal weapon? I suppose.

But that’s a lot of ifs, isn’t it?

None of that seems all too plausible at the moment. What does seem realistic for these 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers is for them to jump on T.J. Watt’s back and ride him all the way to respectability.

It’s a weird thing to say about someone not nicknamed Big Ben, right? However, it couldn’t be more accurate at the moment.

Wasn’t it surreal seeing Watt standing around in team-issued Steelers’ apparel on Sunday at Heinz Field, while the rest of his teammates—including a defense that was considered to be the class of the league just two weeks earlier—were getting manhandled by the team usually known as the Bungals?

The Bengals' offense performed efficiently without Watt around to gum up the works, and it was the Steelers' defense that seemed to be bungaling around all afternoon. If quarterback Joe Burrow was touched at all on Sunday, it was only when he was giving high fives to his teammates following huge gains and scores.

I realize Alex Highsmith was also out for Sunday’s game, as was defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, who may not play another down for Pittsburgh in 2021. But, come on, this is Watt’s defense. This is Watt’s team.

What has been the most consistent part of the Steelers’ program since 2017? Sacking the quarterback, something Pittsburgh has been better at than any team since Watt’s rookie season, which, not so coincidentally, was 2017.

I thought it was funny the way the fans and the media were filled with so much angst when discussing Watt’s uncertain contract status right before the regular season.

“Why is everyone so worried about T.J. getting his money?” I asked myself several times. Now I see why the urgency was so great, why $100 million in guaranteed money (it actually came in at $80 million when all was said and done) seemed like such a bargain to many.

Watt is now the reason for the Steelers’ season. There are currently no ifs when you’re talking about Watt. When he’s in the lineup, you know how dangerous the Steelers defense will be, how he’s capable of changing the tide of a game all by himself.

We saw that over the first six quarters of the 2021 season. With Watt, the Steelers seemed to be at least capable of putting up a fight against anyone in the NFL. Without him, they’ve looked like the Lions, Jaguars and Bears—-oh my.

Can a healthy Watt save a Steelers’ season that appears to be quickly spiraling out of control? Let’s put it this way: the Steelers will go as far as T.J. Watt can carry them in 2021.