PITTSBURGH — Two days after lip readers shook their heads as they saw him telling Steelers medical personnel that he tore his left pec as he walked off the field in Cincinnati, TJ Watt relayed another meaningful message.
Tweeting a Terminator gif with the catchphrase “I’ll be back,” Watt allayed fears Tuesday afternoon that his season was over, avoiding the kind of worst-case scenario that felt nearly inevitable when he left the field.
“We’re probably in a lot better place than we were after the game,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “I can definitely say that TJ won’t play this week [against the Patriots] but I won’t make any commitments beyond that.”
On Monday, Watt walked through the locker room several times, and though he turned down interview requests he seemed upbeat. There was reason for his optimism: scans and evaluations showed that while the pectoral is torn, he doesn’t need surgery and may be sidelined only six weeks, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. That would put his return near the end of October, possibly in time for the Steelers’ Sunday night showdown in Miami on Oct. 23
“He always has a good attitude about things, and that’s what makes him a good leader as well,” outside linebacker Alex Highsmith said. “Even in bad times, he’s always trying to make everyone better around him. I think by him having that, he’s letting people know that it’s going to be alright.”
Though Watt avoided what could’ve been a season-ending injury, the Steelers defense — the unquestioned strength of the 2022 team — will be weaker in his absence.
A year ago, Watt tied Michael Strahan’s 22.5-sack NFL record en route to his first Defensive Player of the Year award, and he did it in 15 games after missing one game with a groin injury and another with a knee injury. He also played less than a week after testing positive for COVID-19 and recorded 3.5 sacks of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in his first game after the illness. Prior to his injury Sunday, Watt had defended an interception, 1 sack, 3 tackles for loss and 2 passes.
Pectoral injuries have a range of outcomes and recovery times, but Watt — and his brother, JJ — have repeatedly proved recovery times to simply be suggestions. JJ Watt scored a pectoral in October 2019 and returned Jan. 4, 2020, for a Houston Texans overtime playoff win.
“I’d rather say ‘whoa’ than ‘sic ’em’ [in terms of rushing Watt back],” Tomlin said. “We’re talking about protecting a highly competitive, talented guy. That’s the job, so I’m not going to act like that’s a problem.”
The youngest Watt is a game-wrecker, a terror for opposing quarterbacks and a cornerstone of a defense that had all the makings of a stalwart unit. Losing him for any period not only hurts the Steelers’ pass rush, it also limits some of the team’s defensive packages, including the three-outside-linebacker groupings it deployed at times each of the past two seasons. Without Watt, the Steelers will have to lean more on their secondary to apply pressure and get creative in bringing blitzes.
“He’s the best in the world at what he does,” Highsmith said. “I’m just thankful for the way he’s helped me in my game and everything. … I know a guy like him, that’s going to hurt him that he’s not out there because he loves football so much. We’re just going to rally around him. We’ve got the guys to just be able to step in and deliver if he’s not able to go.”
The depth of the outside linebacker corps was a major question entering training camp, and the Steelers swapped late-round picks with the Denver Broncos to acquire Malik Reed on cut-down day in an effort to fortify the group. When Watt went out Sunday afternoon, the Steelers rotated Reed and Jamir Jones in the second outside linebacker spot, playing them opposite of Highsmith. Reed finished the game Sunday playing 32 of 100 defensive snaps, while Jones played 18.
The Steelers were attracted to Reed, who had 13 sacks in the past two seasons, because of his starting experience, and they’ll lean on it even more now.
“He’s an edge guy that provides good quality depth for us there,” Tomlin said of Reed last month. “He’s played a lot; he’s played over 700 snaps the last two seasons. He was kind of the third guy that got elevated and played a lot in Denver because of circumstances, [Bradley] Chubb and others. He brings a type of experience that’s helpful to us.”
Reed started 13 games with the Broncos each of the past two seasons, at times replacing premier pass-rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. He came to Pittsburgh in hopes of getting more playing time after the Broncos acquired Randy Gregory, and Reed’s previous experience makes him especially prepared to fill in for Watt.
“They just said be ready for your role to expand,” Reed said Monday. “I knew that was part of my reason for coming here. So I’ve been ready for it.”
Jones, though, lacks the same experience. He spent time with the Steelers last season but was released after recording zero tackles in a week 3 start.
“Every time you get released, it’s like a slap in the face,” Jones said. “You’ve got to use that and use it to get better. Looking at yourself in the mirror and see what flaws you have and attack those. And that’s what I did every single day.”
With Watt’s extended absence, Highsmith, in his third season, will be the new on-field leader of the outside linebacker group. He got out to a hot start against the Bengals, recording 3 sacks, 2 tackles for loss and 4 quarterback hits in his season debut. The stat line is especially impressive after Highsmith missed a big chunk of training camp dealing with a lingering ribs injury.
“It’s a testament to his ability to condition himself while he was injured,” defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. “He stayed locked in. The year before, he dealt with an injury and it kind of hammered him going into the season. I thought this year he looked really ready for this moment.”
But for all of Watt’s measurables, it’s the intangibles that the Steelers will miss, too. Watt was voted a captain a week ago, the second time he’s had the honor since he was drafted in 2017. He’s an emotional leader and a teacher, firing up his teammates with highlight-reel plays and educating them on his ways during practice.
“Having TJ out there definitely benefits us,” Heyward said Sunday. “He’s a leader. He’s the Defensive Player of the Year. However long it takes, other guys got to step up. Alex [Highsmith] stepped up pretty good today. Malik [Reed] and Jamir [Jones] are coming along. We had to do some different stuff out there, but we rally around him. And when he gets back, we’ll be ready.”