How will the Pittsburgh Steelers regroup after the T.J. Watt injury?

PITTSBURGH — Two days after lipreaders shook their heads when they saw him tell Steelers medical staff that he tore his left breast leaving the field in Cincinnati, TJ Watt delivered another meaningful message.

Tweeting a Terminator gif with the catchphrase “I’ll be back,” Watt Tuesday afternoon allayed fears that his season was over and avoided the worst-case scenario that felt almost inevitable as he left the field.

“We’re probably in a much better position than we were after the game,” said coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday. “I can definitely say TJ won’t be playing this week [against the Patriots] but I will make no commitments beyond that.”

On Monday, Watt walked through the dressing room several times, and while he turned down interview requests, he appeared upbeat. There was reason for his optimism: Scans and evaluations showed that despite the chest tear, he would not need surgery and would only be sidelined for six weeks, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. That would mean his return towards 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 makes him a good leader as well,” said outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. “Even when times are bad, he’s always trying to make everyone around him better. I think when he has that, he lets people know it’s going to be good.”

Though Watt avoided a season-ending injury, the Steelers defense — the team’s undisputed strength of 2022 — will be weaker in his absence.

A year ago, Watt matched Michael Strahan’s 22.5-sack NFL record en route to his first Defensive Player of the Year award, and he did so in 15 games after suffering one game with a groin injury and another with a knee injury had missed. 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. Before his injury on Sunday, Watt had defended an interception, 1 sack, 3 tackles for loss and 2 passes.

Chest injuries have a range of outcomes and recovery times, but Watt – and his brother JJ – have proven time and time again that recovery times are just suggestions. JJ Watt tore his chest in October 2019 and returned in overtime on January 4, 2020 for a Houston Texans 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 man. That’s the job, so I’m not going to pretend it’s a problem.”

The youngest Watt is a spoilsport, a terror to opposing quarterbacks, and a cornerstone of a defense that had all the makings of a steadfast unit. Losing him for any period of time not only hurts the Steelers’ passing rush, but also limits some of the team’s defensive packages, including the three-outside linebacker groupings it has used at times over the past two seasons. Without Watt, the Steelers have to lean more on their secondary school to apply pressure and get creative to score strobes.

“He’s the best in the world at what he does,” Highsmith said. “I’m just grateful for how he 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 just go to gather him. We have the guys who can just step in and deliver when he can’t go.

The strength of the outside linebacker corps was a major issue entering training camp, and the Steelers traded picks with the Denver Broncos late in the round to acquire Malik Reed on cut-down day to bolster the group. As Watt went out Sunday afternoon, the Steelers traded Reed and Jamir Jones to the second outside linebacker spot, playing them across from Highsmith. Reed finished Sunday’s game with 32 of 100 defensive snaps while Jones played 18.

The Steelers were drawn to Reed because of his starting experience, who has had 13 sacks over the past two seasons, and they’ll be drawing on that even more now.

“He’s an edge guy that gives us good depth there,” Tomlin said of Reed last month. “He played a lot; he has played over 700 snaps in the last two seasons. He was like the third guy to come up and play a lot in Denver because of the circumstances. [Bradley] Chub and others. He brings a kind of experience that’s helpful for us.”

Reed started 13 games with the Broncos in each of the last two seasons, at times replacing leading pass rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. He came to Pittsburgh hoping to get more playing time after the Broncos took on Randy Gregory, and Reed’s past experience particularly prepares him to fill in for Watt.

“They just said be ready to expand your role,” Reed said Monday. “I knew that was one of my reasons for coming here. So I was prepared for that.”

However, Jones lacks the same experience. He spent time with the Steelers last season but was fired after not recording a tackle in Week 3.

“Every time you get fired, it’s like a slap in the face,” Jones said. “You have to use that and use that to get better. Look at yourself in the mirror and see what flaws you have and attack them. And I did that every day.”

With Watts’ extended absence, Highsmith will be the new field leader of the Outside Linebacker group in his third season. He got off to a hot start against the Bengals, recording 3 sacks, 2 tackles for loss and 4 quarterback hits on his season debut. The stat line is particularly impressive after Highsmith missed a large part of training camp with an ongoing rib injury.

“It’s a testament to his ability to condition himself while he was injured,” said defense attorney Cam Heyward. “He stayed locked up. The year before he had been dealing with an injury and that kind of hammered him ahead of the season. I thought this year he looked really ready for that moment.”

But for all of Watt’s measurable values, it’s also the intangibles that the Steelers will miss. Watt was elected captain a week ago, the second time he has received the honor since his call-up in 2017. He is an emotional leader and a teacher who fires up his teammates with highlights and updates them on his approach during practice.

“Having TJ out there definitely benefits us,” Heyward said Sunday. “He’s a leader. He is Defensive Player of the Year. No matter how long it takes, other guys have to step up. Alex [Highsmith] I improved a lot today. Malik [Reed] and jamir [Jones] come with. We had some other stuff to do out there, but we’re rallying around him. And when he comes back, we’ll be ready.” How will the Pittsburgh Steelers regroup after the T.J. Watt injury?

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