Steelers have proven once again that they can't even stay competitive without TJ Watt

Pittsburgh continues their losing ways without T.J. Watt, and the evidence without him is condemning.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers / Sarah Stier/GettyImages
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You don't have to search long and hard to figure out how valuable T.J. Watt is to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. Watt asserted his dominance in his second NFL season in 2018. Since then, he has been widely regarded as the best player on the team (which probably explains why he's the only player ever to earn the Steelers Team MVP award four times).

We knew that if Pittsburgh made it to the NFL Playoffs, Watt's presence would be required to find success. Unfortunately, the four-time First-Team All-Pro pass rusher sustained a knee injury late in the Steelers' season finale against the Ravens and was not able to suit up in the postseason.

Without Watt in the lineup against the Buffalo Bills, things went exactly how we thought they would in the Wild Card round for Pittsburgh. Outside a pair of sacks, the defense was completely void of consistent pressure and splash plays. Even with a blocked field goal and a missed extra point by Buffalo, Pittsburgh still surrendered 31 points to Josh Allen and the Bills in their playoff loss.

Though a healthy T.J. Watt might not have made the difference in this contest, I find it hard to believe that his presence on the field wouldn't have given Pittsburgh a fighting chance. At one point, the Steelers fought back within one score in the fourth quarter, but without a closer on defense, they couldn't get Allen and company off the field when it mattered most.

Steelers defense is nowhere near the same without T.J. Watt

Now we have a 12-game sample size of what the Steelers look like when T.J. Watt does not play... and it's not pretty. In my research, with stats collected from Pro Football Reference, here's Pittsburgh's record, defensive stats, and splash plays when Watt is in the lineup versus when he's out of the lineup.

Without Watt, the Steelers' defense has allowed 26.7 points per game to their opponents while creating less than half as many sacks and splash plays like interceptions, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries. The most interesting thing to note, however, is that Pittsburgh has a record of just 1-11 when he doesn't play.

Those who take a look at this chart will undoubtedly ask for context, which is important. I have provided that as well. Here's a breakdown of every team and opposing quarterback the Steelers have faced when Watt has been absent with injuries.

As you can see, the Steelers haven't just been losing because they happen to play great opponents when Watt is absent. Over the years, Pittsburgh has lost to quarterbacks like Mike Glennon, Baker Mayfield, Mac Jones, Jacoby Brissett, and Zach Wilson when Watt doesn't see the field.

Additionally, fans will argue that the bulk of these losses occurred when the Steelers didn't have a capable backup behind Watt. It's true that Malik Reed wasn't a good option as a stop-gap starter for Pittsburgh in 2022. But what about the games where they had a capable Melvin Ingram coming off the bench? Or what about the Bills playoff game when it was Markus Golden and Nick Herbig who shared the workload with Watt out?

We can even look at splits of other great Steelers players when Watt doesn't play. Look at Cameron Heyward, for example. Watt and Heyward have only ever been absent at the same time once. In the 11 games Heyward has played without Watt, the All-Pro defensive lineman has recorded just 2.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 0 fumble recoveries.

All of this certainly isn't to say that Watt swings all 11 losses the other direction if he's healthy and on the field. But I don't think it's any coincidence that the Pittsburgh Steelers are this bad when their former Defensive Player of the Year and future Hall of Famer happens to be sidelined.

Obviously, the Steelers are more than a healthy T.J. Watt away from making a Super Bowl run. However, the evidence is mounting that Pittsburgh simply cannot win without their best player. Let's hope he can avoid the injury bug for the remainder of his career.

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