In a return ripe with the expectations usually reserved for franchise quarterbacks, T.J. Watt, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is expected to be back in the lineup on Sunday when the Steelers take on the Saints at Acrisure Stadium at 1 p.m.
Watt, who was placed on Injured Reserve after sustaining a pectoral injury late in a Week 1 win over the Bengals on September 11, missed seven-straight games, and Pittsburgh (2-6) managed to win just one of them.
The defense suffered greatly in Watt’s absence, recording just eight sacks, along with five takeaways.
The Steelers' defense is currently ranked 29th in the NFL—including 31st against the pass.
Can Watt make that much of a difference when he does return to the Steelers lineup? We’re about to find out. We’re about to see if Watt can take the pressure off of Cam Heyward, a normally dynamic defensive lineman who had to deal with many more double teams as the new marked man along the front seven. Speaking of marked men, Alex Highsmith, the Steelers other starting outside linebacker opposite Watt, tallied an impressive three sacks in Cincinnati in Week 1 but had only 3.5 in the subsequent seven games without No. 90 drawing so much of the attention.
To repeat something I’ve said often this season, the Steelers' defense, even without Watt in the lineup, has been an under-discussed story when examining Pittsburgh and its woes in 2022.
It’s not just the offense. It’s not just Kenny Pickett. It’s not just Matt Canada.
The defense deserves to be a much bigger talking point than it has been through eight games.
Hopefully, Watt can not only make the Steelers' defense effective and potent again, but he can help to lift the entire team up a notch or two in the process. I say this because it feels like that’s what’s being expected of Watt, a man the Steelers decided to guarantee $80 million to just prior to the 2021 campaign. If there was any doubt that Watt deserved that kind of cash, he snuffed it out like he often does opposing quarterbacks by recording 22.5 sacks and, to repeat, being voted DPOY.
It’s not a matter of whether or not Watt deserves to be paid what the Steelers are guaranteeing him. The question is: Is he worth such a lofty investment by the franchise, itself? Will that investment pay off in the end? Is Watt that much of a difference maker that he can take a downtrodden team—horrible offense and all—and raise it to another level?
We all know what franchise quarterbacks mean to a team, but what about franchise edge rushers?
We’re about to find out if T.J. Watt truly is the new face of the Steelers franchise.