One game into the 2022 NFL season, and suddenly the Steelers are facing a season-defining situation. How do the Steelers approach the immediate future with their best player, 2021 Defensive Player of the Year winner T.J. Watt, recently landing on the injured reserve list, where he will reside for at least four weeks?
As devastating as the injury initially appeared, potentially of the season ending variety, the current 4 to 6 weeks projected absence is definitely a best case scenario. But the question remains, what is the best approach for the Steelers to take to minimize the impact of Watt's irreplaceable loss?
In my opinion, there isn't another player in the NFL who can completely fill his shoes, definitely no individual on the Steelers depth chart at the position. So, some extra effort from his standout defensive comrades, plus some added creativity from the Brian Flores pass rushing playbook, will be required.
T.J. Watt plays with a frenetic energy and relentless determination that overwhelms and wears down the opposition. Trying to replace the irreplaceable will take a well executed group effort.
Reed is undoubtedly the most prepared individual walking the planet for this situation. On multiple occasions during his tenure with the Denver Broncos, he was tasked with filling in for injured superstar pass rusher Von Miller. Because of that experience, he understands more than most what it is like to face an impossibly daunting situation. There is no way possible that he can match Watt's production and unfathomable impact on the Steelers defense. All Reed can do is continue to be the steady and reliable contributor he has always been in his NFL career, faithfully fulfilling his assignments as part of the total team effort.
Watt's presence on the other side of the field has greatly impacted Highsmith's career to this point. Not only because offenses have been forced to tilt their pass protection focus to Watt's side of the field, but through the example of his never say die, grind it out mentality. Watt made a habit out of defeating double teams on his way to a record-setting season in 2021. Highsmith had a breakout performance against the Bengals, finishing with three sacks. He was disruptive throughout the game, perfectly complimenting Watt's equally dominant performance on the other end of the line of scrimmage. Now Highsmith becomes the primary focus of the opposition's pass protection packages. Is Highsmith ready for the increased attention and responsibility? Based on his renowned work ethic, and the unmistakable physical and professional growth that have resulted from said dedication, I believe he is both willing and able.
Highsmith and Reed are definitely going to have their hands full, trying to help carry the extra weight. As we already know, the standard is the standard. Both men are facing a substantial increase in snaps, particularly Reed. It is imperative the Steelers depth chart steps up and provides them some effective relief and recovery. That's where Jamir Jones comes into the equation. Last year, Jones was inexperienced and unprepared when he was forced into the starting lineup when both Watt and Highsmith were unavailable due to groin injuries. Jones displayed intriguing potential and intangibles in his first stint with the Steelers, but lacked the polish that comes with experience. Jones has always displayed the functional strength necessary to set an effective edge against the running game, but he will need to show he possesses the pass rush repertoire needed to be the well-rounded contributor the defense needs for the near future.
The Steelers signed undrafted rookie David Anenih from the Tennessee Titans practice squad on Thursday. Anenih failed to make the Titans 53-man roster, even though he was a preseason standout after accumulating three sacks, but was quickly added to the practice squad. Anenih is another young and talented pass rusher with potential on the Steelers ever evolving roster, with the key word being potential. Nobody knows if Anenih is capable of contributing during Watt's absence, but the Steelers obviously have respect for his abilities, considering the circumstances.
Anyone who followed my offseason articles and podcasts already knew I would be mentioning Leal at some point in this article. I readily admit that I have found Leal's potential to be incredibly interesting since his third round selection, and not only because of his obvious talent and versatility. My question from the start has been this, "What position do the Steelers foresee him playing?" Based on his collegiate tape, he looked like a possible tweener to me. Was he better suited to be a 4-3 end, or a 3-4 edge? He reminded me of former Steelers standout edge pass rusher LaMarr Woodley, both in body type and skill set. I fully expected the Steelers to instruct him to arrive at camp at about 280, so they could start giving him reps on the edge. Didn't happen, as the Steelers have been working him solely on the defensive line. That doesn't change the fact that Leal has both the talent and athleticism to slide out on the edge, if needed.
As the old saying goes, Desperate times call for desperate measures. A little insightful creativity and ingenuity can work wonders as well.