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T.J. Watt landing in concussion protocol raises questions for NFL, Steelers

Watt played a full game following a hit to the head, but was placed in concussion protocol the following day.

Linebacker T.J. Watt (90) of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before the game against the New England Patriots at Acrisure Stadium on December 07, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Steelers’ defensive star T.J. Watt entered concussion protocol after showing symptoms the day following Pittsburgh’s Week 14 loss to the Patriots.

Against New England, Watt was hit in the face by running back Ezekiel Elliott’s knee on the first play from scrimmage. He briefly left the game but soon returned, only being evaluated again once the Steelers defense was off the field. Prime Video sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung told the broadcast that a trainer wiped blood from Watt’s chin and a doctor evaluated his jaw joint, although “no other attention was paid to him after that.”

Watt continued to play, but entered the blue medical tent late in the first quarter. He re-entered the game a few plays later wearing a tinted visor that he hadn’t previously worn during the game. Watt played throughout the rest of the night, appearing in 91.2% of the Steelers’ defensive snaps per Pro Football Reference. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Brian Batko also noted that Watt “did not go to the podium postgame like he usually does, and was slated to do.”

Watt’s dark visor has been seen as suspicious by many, as light sensitivity and a “blank or vacant” look are common concussion symptoms referenced in the NFL’s very own concussion protocol resource. In high school football, dark visors are generally banned as it prevents officials from seeing players’ eyes to check for head injuries.

Other concussion symptoms listed by the NFL include being “slow to get up from the ground or return to play following a hit to the head,” something Watt definitely showed following his collision with Elliott.

Given that Watt is the most important player on Pittsburgh’s defense and the Steelers were low on outside linebacker depth entering the game, some suspicions have been raised following how the team let Watt finish the game.

However, it wasn’t likely the team’s choice to make. Returning to the NFL’s concussion protocol resource, the rules make it clear that teams are required to have an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant on their sideline for every game to identify players with concussion symptoms and observe and work in consultation with team medical staffs. Additionally, the NFL uses concussion spotters in the booth to monitor players on the field for concussion symptoms.

The NFL has a lot of resources in place to ensure teams don’t continue to play athletes with head injuries. Additionally, medical resources like the CDC and Mayo Clinic also state that concussion symptoms aren’t always immediate. Still, Watt playing with a dark visor seems to indicate that there was some reason why he decided to make the change, and he ultimately ended up in concussion protocol the next day.

However, if there is blame to go around, it likely falls more on the NFL’s neurotrauma-specific staff for missing Watt’s potential symptoms rather than the Steelers’ coaches intentionally making him play through a brain injury in an important game — although the tinted visor still doesn’t completely make sense. Watt could also have not reported his symptoms during the game.

Watt joins fellow pass-rusher Alex Highsmith in concussion protocol following the team’s loss to New England. Highsmith left the game following what was named a neck injury.

Both players will have to be cleared by an independent neurologist before they take the field again. They’ll both have more time than usual to clear the protocol as the Steelers have a long week after playing on Thursday. Their next game will be against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, December 16 at 4:30 p.m. ET.