The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were sure to have one of the best defenses in the league back in week one. The seven weeks that have followed told a different story. You all know what the difference was: the absence of T.J. Watt, who suffered a pectoral injury late in the season opener.
As great as he is—and he’s truly arguably the best defender in all of football—no one player should account for the difference in a unit that we have seen from week one to the past seven. The talent could be better, but ultimately, says defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, that falls at his feet.
“We obviously didn’t do a good enough job when he was out of creating some turnovers and creating some rush and doing that stuff”, he said via the team’s website, while Watt was out. “Obviously that falls on me because we didn’t get it done. But we’re glad to have him back and we’re gonna go from here”.
Watt led the NFL in sacks and tackles for loss in 2021, as he did the previous season. He was the runner-up for Defensive player of the Year in 2020 before finally winning it last year. Already in the opener he had notched a sack, an interception, and three tackles for loss prior to exiting with an injury.
“T.J.’s T.J. He’s a guy that would be similar to a great receiver. If you don’t take care of him and let him wreck the game, he will”, Austin said in describing the impact a difference-maker can have. “He’s kind of that guy for us. If they don’t take care of him on offense, he’ll wreck the game. So obviously they can direct their energy somewhere else when he’s not in the game”.
Nevertheless, it’s still difficult to account for just how much of a difference his absence has made, especially when considering that there does exist talent elsewhere. Minkah Fitzpatrick is an All-Pro safety, sharing honorifics with Cameron Heyward up front. Myles Jack at linebacker and Larry Ogunjobi on the line are no slouches either.
There are weak spots, sure, but coaching and scheme are supposed to mitigate and hide those deficiencies. To the staff’s credit, they at least tried a variety of different combinations of personnel and groupings, even if at times it seemed to do more harm than good.
“We tried. We did things”, Austin said, “we thought were appropriate and that would give us an opportunity to generate some different looks, some different pressures without him in the game. And obviously I failed at it”.
Whether it was a 3-3-5 nickel or a three-linebacker package, various different combinations in the secondary, the Steelers threw a lot of options against the wall to see what stuck. As it turns out, Watt was the glue all along.