Steelers brace to play on without injured NFL defensive player of year T.J. Watt

Entering the second week of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing to play without NFL defensive player of the year T.J. Watt for an extended period of time.

The questions are, how long will that extended period cover and what is the severity of the pectoral injury that sent Watt to the sideline in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 23-20 victory at Cincinnati in the season opener?

Watt was injured in the final minute of regulation Sunday and pointed at his left pec muscle as he walked off the field. He underwent testing Monday and was in the locker room during the period when reporters are permitted inside, although he declined to be interviewed.

An ESPN report said Watt will miss six weeks if surgery is not needed. If Watt does require surgery, he could miss the rest of the regular season, which has 16 games remaining for the 1-0 Steelers. He will seek second and third opinions on the original diagnosis, which suggests the initial report is not good.

“We’ll see,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “I don’t know what all the details are, but we’ll rally around him, make sure guys step up in the meantime. Whenever he gets back to us, we’ll be ready.”

Heyward was in a similar position six years ago. He tore his pec muscle off the bone in a November game against the Dallas Cowboys. He missed the final seven games of the regular season and the Steelers’ run to the AFC championship game.

In 2019, defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt sustained a pec injury in an October game at the Los Angeles Chargers and missed the final 10 games of the season.

“Mine was significant,” Heyward said. “I couldn’t feel it so I didn’t know what was going on. The next day it was all black and blue. Hopefully, that is not it. We don’t know what to expect. I think everybody is saying a prayer right now.”

As he walked through the locker room, Watt wore a camouflage hoodie and didn’t appear to be in any discomfort.

“I think he’s had a good attitude,” said outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, who had three of the Steelers’ seven sacks against the Bengals. “That’s what makes him the kind of guy he is around the locker room. He always has a good attitude about things, and that’s what makes him a good leader as well. In bad times, he’s always trying to make everyone better around him.

“By him having that, he’s letting people know that everything is going to be alright.”

In his first game since earning defensive player of the year honors, Watt had six tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss and an interception. The Steelers used a pair of recently acquired players – Malik Reed and Jamir Jones – at Watt’s spot for the final snaps of regulation and the entire overtime.

“It’s going to take all 11 of us,” said Jones, who was claimed off waivers 12 days ago after being released by Jacksonville. “We feel like our defense is really elite as we showed, and we’re going to keep it going.”

Jones batted down a pass and had a tackle while playing 18% of the defensive snaps Sunday. Reed had an assisted tackle and played 32% of the snaps in his Steelers debut.

For the immediate future, the Steelers will turn to Reed, the former Denver Broncos outside linebacker, to pair with Highsmith as bookend pass rushers. Reed is a fourth-year vet who started 34 games in three seasons with the Broncos. Most of those starts came because of injuries to star pass rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.

Reed responded by combining for 13 sacks over the 2020-21 seasons. The Steelers acquired him two weeks ago to give the Steelers a veteran presence behind Watt and Highsmith.

“They just said to be ready for your role to expand,” Reed said. “I knew that was part of my reason coming here so I was ready for it.”

Although Reed is well versed in replacing injured players, he didn’t anticipate – or want – his ascension to a starting role with the Steelers to come at the expense of the team losing Watt.

“I didn’t know when it was going to be or what time it was going to show up, but I knew I was going to b ready for it when that time came,” he said. “I feel bad for T.J. and hope he gets back healthy as soon as possible.”

Reed will resist the temptation to emulate Watt’s skill set. It would be moot, Heyward said, calling Watt an “abnormal” player.

“When I talk about stepping up, it’s another guy being put into a position that he’s got to do what he’s got to do,” he said. “He’s got to make the plays he has to. He’s got to be in the right gap. T.J. does some abnormal stuff that not a lot of other people can, but we have to be sound in our alignments and our techniques.”

Reed agreed.

“I believe in who I am and what I can do,” he said. “I believe it will be more than enough. T.J. is a great player, he does great things. I’m going to be the best version of Malik that I can be and run with that.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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