The NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 has returned for the Steelers and appears to be 100 percent healthy for the first time since his week one injury against the Bengals last season. Pittsburgh's 2023 season opener was a major disappointment, but the Steelers' unquestionable leader left it all out on the field.
T.J. Watt racked up three sacks on the 49ers' quarterback Brock Purdy and was responsible for one of the Steelers' only memorable plays of the afternoon.
Before Watt's third sack, the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year registered his second sack on Brock Purdy and seemingly recovered his forced fumble. Officials would later rule Brock Purdy recovered the fumble caused by Watt.
With just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Steelers' future hall-of-fame edge rusher bolted off the line and screamed past San Francisco's right tackle Colton McKivitz. Watt reached Purdy for the third time and ripped the ball out of his hands, giving the Steelers' offense another chance to squander a drive.
Pittsburgh would fall to the San Francisco 49ers in a lopsided defeat and a final score of 30 - 7. Watt's final stat line included five tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and a pass deflection, via ESPN stats.
In what was a dark and dreary day for the Steelers, T.J. Watt was able to provide fans with a glimmer of hope for the rest of the season. After Sunday's early slate of games, Watt was tied for most sacks in the league with the Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen, and the San Francisco 49ers defensive end Drake Jackson.
As entertaining as it was to see Watt dominate his opposition, it still doesn't hide the fact that Pittsburgh's pass rush was nearly non-existent aside from Watt's three sacks. The Steelers' defense must get more out of Alex Highsmith, Markus Golden, and their interior defensive linemen.
To make matters worse, Cam Heyward suffered a groin injury against the 49ers on Sunday, and will likely not be fully healthy going into next week's game. Heyward's unfortunate injury could be a perfect opportunity for someone like Demarvin Leal to step up and prove his worth as a member of this defense.
The Steelers would love to see another herculean effort from Watt next week as they host their bitter rivals, the Cleveland Browns. With Cleveland's offensive strength coming on the ground through running back Nick Chubb, look for Watt to focus his efforts on slowing the Browns' rushing attack in week 2. Let's hope T.J. Watt can stay healthy this season and carry this momentum toward another Defensive Player of the Year campaign and maybe even a new NFL sack record.