Can the Steelers survive the 2022 season if T.J. Watt goes down?

T.J. Watt #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
T.J. Watt #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

T.J. Watt is clearly one of the most important defenders in the league, so could the Pittsburgh Steelers weather the storm without him if he goes down in 2022?

The Pittsburgh Steelers were not only incredibly fortunate to land T.J. Watt with the 30th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, they should be grateful for how healthy he has been early in his career.

Over his first five seasons, Watt has never started fewer than 15 games in a year. However, fans got a bit of a scare when Pittsburgh’s star player went down with an injury early in the Steelers Week 2 contest against the Raiders.

Fortunately, this injury turned out to be just a pulled groin. But it sidelined him for the final three quarters of the game and forced him to miss the following Week 3 contest against the Bengals. Pittsburgh would lose both games in his absence.

When Watt returned to the field in Week 4 against the Green Bay Packers, he clearly wasn’t up to full speed yet. After playing at least 83 percent of snaps from Week 4 to Week 8, Watt suffered another injury less than halfway through Pittsburgh’s Week 9 contest against the Detroit Lions –a game in which Mason Rudolph also had to fill in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger. The result of the game was a tie.

This was the biggest scare of the season for Steelers fans. Watt went down clutching his knee. Ultimately, the diagnosis was as good as fans could have expected. MRIs on T.J.’s hip and knee came back negative, but he wouldn’t be ready to go right away. Watt would miss the following week against the Chargers — a game where the defense allowed a whopping 41 points in his absence.

Three weeks later, Watt would leave the contest against the Minnesota Vikings after reinjuring his groin. Watt would bounce back with an impressive showing against the Tennessee Titans, but would leave the contest against the Chiefs early after due to cracked ribs.

Steelers can’t survive long without T.J. Watt

The sample size of the Steelers playing without T.J. Watt is too small to make a lot of bold statements, but the results without their best player were no good.

When Watt was healthy, the results couldn’t have been much better for Pittsburgh last season. The Steelers had one of the best records in the league and their defense was very respectable. However, it was night and day when Watt either missed the game or left the contest due to an injury.

Here’s a look at the team’s record and points per game allowed when Watt was on the field compared to when he wasn’t, according to Pro Football Reference:

Remarkably, the Steelers were 9-2 when Watt was healthy and in the lineup. This is a massive difference from their 0-5-1 record without him. Obviously, there are many other factors that need to be considered when looking at these statistics, such as the strength of schedule, when Watt left the contest, and which other starters were missing in these games.

Regardless of whether you want to buy into this or not, Watt’s impact on the field is very easy to see, and I don’t believe the Steelers would have come close to making the playoffs without him last season.

In 2022, we can expect much of the same. Though Pittsburgh’s offense could improve, I don’t think many people are expecting Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett to lead a top-tier offense. The Steelers will be forced to play ball-control offense and contain teams defensively.

The quarterback play that the Steelers get will still be most important in determining the outcome of football games this year, but Watt’s presence on the field is a close second. If he were to suffer a major injury and go down for the season, their game plan on defense would be ruined, as it essentially revolves around the pressure that Watt creates.

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Obviously, we hope that we don’t have to see Watt go down at any point this year. If he can stay healthy, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year will keep the Steelers in most football games. But if Watt were to be lost for the season, I would hate to see what this team would look like without him for an extended period.