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The Steelers defense is merely average without T.J. Watt

The Steelers defense, despite being the highest paid in the NFL in 2022, is merely average (at best) without T.J. Watt.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

If you’re scoring at home, the Steelers are now 0-6-1 in their last seven games where T.J. Watt has either been inactive or compromised because of injury.

Thursday night’s 29-17 loss to the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium added to the tally, as Teryl Austin’s Watt-less charges allowed Cleveland’s offensive crew, led by quarterback Jacoby Brissett, to effectively control the tempo of the game from beginning to end.

Speaking of Brissett, he wasn’t necessarily as free from the wrath of Pittsburgh’s normally potent pass rush as Mac Jones was just a few days earlier, but he did mostly find comfort in the pocket and was hit just four times and sacked twice on the night.

In case you’re counting at home, that’s seven quarterback hits and two sacks in the two games that Watt has been out of action after injuring his pectoral muscle in a Week 1 overtime win over the Bengals in Cincinnati.

Speaking of action, the Browns had their share of fun times on the ground on Thursday night, rushing for 171 yards—including 113 yards and a score on 23 carries by the mostly always awesome Nick Chubb.

If you’re still at home and counting stats, that’s a combined 295 rushing yards by the Patriots and Browns, respectively, in the two games that Watt has been out of action due to a pectoral injury.

The Steelers defense didn’t register a takeaway on Thursday—it may have been too preoccupied with chasing down Chubb, along with receiver Amari Cooper and tight end David Njoku.

If you’re sitting at home and only know how to count to one, you’re in luck. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted a Mac Jones pass early in Week 2’s loss to the Patriots at Acrisure Stadium, marking the only takeaway the Steelers defense has generated in the two games that Watt has been on the shelf with a pectoral injury.

If the Steelers continue at the current sack and takeaway pace they’ve been on in Watt’s absence, they won’t finish with many sacks or takeaways.

That's rather unfortunate, considering the defense was on pace for 119 sacks and 85 takeaways after that exciting and crazy Week 1 victory at Paycor Stadium.

Watt dominated that game until he left late in regulation with the aforementioned pec injury.

He’ll likely dominate again once he returns to the lineup and is at full strength.

Watt will also probably make the Steelers' defense effective again and not just average—or “mid,” as the kids say.

What’s it say about the Steelers’ defense, the highest paid in the NFL in 2022, that it is merely average—mid—without Watt’s services? I realize he’s arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, but while I knew the unit would be hugely impacted by Watt’s absence, I didn’t expect it to be so benign.

I didn’t expect it to totally lose its ability to bite and tear. I didn’t expect it to be declawed by opposing offenses. I didn’t anticipate it having to be “helped” by a Steelers offense that’s clearly not able to do that at the moment.

“The defense played well enough to win!” is a common refrain from Steelers fans who love to treat that side of the ball as if it’s the gifted but unfocused son who just needs some direction. (Btw, the offense is the red-headed stepchild who can never seem to chop an adequate amount of firewood—even back in the days when it would chop 42 points worth.)

While the offense is certainly a liability for the Steelers in 2022, didn’t we kind of know that going in? I don’t think anyone anticipated that Matt Canada, with a resume that included many college OC jobs and the title of “Steelers Secret 2020 Offensive Coordinator and Motion Wizard,” would be able to mold this outfit into a well-oiled machine right out of the gate.

The defense would have to carry the weaker unit.

It hasn’t, and that’s with Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu, Larry Ogunjobi, Alex Highsmith and Fitzpatrick all perfectly fine and healthy.

That doesn’t speak well for the defense.

I know what you’re going to say next, “The defense needs help from the offense. JUST STOP!”

It’s not my job to stop anyone, but I’ll bet I can do as well as the Steelers' defense has been doing without T.J. Watt in the lineup.