The NFL Preseason wraps up this weekend, and for the Pittsburgh Steelers they are planning on hosting the Detroit Lions in Week 3 at Acrisure Stadium. Throughout the abbreviated preseason, the defense has had a singular focus — stop the run. Have they always found success in this regard? No, but that doesn’t change their goal.
In the Week 1 game vs. the Seattle Seahawks, a game which saw the likes of Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu all resting, they surrendered 159 yards on the ground. In the game last Saturday in Week 2 vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars, the defense improved, with the additions of Watt, Ogunjobi and Alualu, by only allowing 97 yards on the ground.
While the fan base would love to see a return of the stifling defenses of the early 2000s, the goal remains the same for this 2022 unit.
“It starts with stopping the run,” Watt told reporters Thursday after practice. “We know what we can do here when we pin our ears back and get after the quarterback. It’s a matter of getting off to a good start and continuing to trend in the right direction as the season goes on.”
While improvement was evident in Jacksonville, more help could be on the way as soon as Sunday. That would come in the form of defensive captain Cam Heyward returning to the lineup. It is unclear if Heyward will play Sunday, but he is trending in the right direction after injuring his ankle in practice before the Week 2 contest.
Other than getting Heyward back on the field, the Steelers have a group of new faces who are being asked to improve the product the team put on display in 2021.
“I think the staff has done a great job of implementing the new guys,” said Watt. “The new guys have got accustomed to what we do here. As we get more and more film together, play together, we’re all going to be better.”
Improvement is key, especially early in the season, and at Watt’s primary position, outside linebacker, the team is dangerously thin. Of course with Watt you have a one-man wrecking crew on the outside, but after Watt nothing is certain. Alex Highsmith continues to miss time with a rib injury, Derrek Tuszka has filled in for Highsmith and following the release of Genard Avery the defense is looking for answers at the position.
One player who could be an answer is rookie Hamilcar Rashed. Rashed was an undrafted rookie free agent (UDFA) out of Oregon State who was signed by the New York Jets after the 2022 NFL Draft. The Steelers signed Rashed off waivers, and he has been getting noticed by both coaches and players.
“He has a good juice to him, plays the run well,” said Watt of the first-year linebacker out of Oregon State. “He also shares the same outside backer coach I had in college. Just to be able to translate some things what we called it in college and what we call it here has been nice. I think he has a good juice, a good pass rush package as well and I think he can do some good things for us.”
It begs the question how much knowledge the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year winner bestows on younger players on the roster. As Watt puts it, he is an open book, but players have to want his knowledge.
“I have always said I am an open book to these guys,” Watt explained. “Any questions they have, I am willing to help anybody get better if they want the help.
“I am never going to push what I know and my experience on people, but if they want to ask me, I am always going to be an open book and I never have a problem trying to help out a younger guy.”
When you look at Watt’s meteoric rise through the NFL ranks since being drafted in 2017, teammates would be foolish not to pick his brain as much as possible. Nonetheless, if there is one aspect of Watt’s game which hopefully rubs off on the entire defensive front, it is the ability to stop the run. After all, it all starts there.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the Detroit Lions this Sunday, and the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1 of the regular season.