Epic opening win comes with possibly high cost for Steelers

PITTSBURGH (AP) — There is no replacing TJ Watt. His energy. His talent. His production.

The reigning NFL defensive player of the year is a singular, primal presence, one that’s been a fixture in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive huddle for five seasons of almost unmatched brilliance.

Watt is the fulcrum of a unit that looked every bit the snarling, hawkish group the Steelers need it to be during an epic 23-20 opening win over Cincinnati.

The Pittsburgh Steelers likely will have to try to replace Watt, at least for a little while. A left pectoral injury he sustained late in the fourth quarter while attempting to sack Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has Watt’s status uncertain, tingeing a road win that offered a blueprint on how the Steelers need to play if they want to hang around in the AFC North.

Seven sacks. Five turnovers. A Pick-6. A goal-line stand. Pittsburgh’s defense checked nearly every box against Burrow, JaMarr Chase & Co. while ending a three-game losing streak to the defending AFC champions.

“We need them to be what we need them to be,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We needed five (turnovers) today. That’s what great defenses do.”

Now comes the hard part: trying to replicate even a fraction of that kind of havoc without Watt. The three-time All-Pro outside linebacker made a brief appearance Monday in the Pittsburgh locker room and seemed upbeat as he declined an interview request from The Associated Press.

Pectoral injuries can be tricky. Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward missed the second half of the 2016 season after tearing his pec in a Week 10 game against Dallas. Watt’s oldest brother, JJ, missed two months with the same injury while playing for Houston in 2019, coming back well ahead of schedule. Pittsburgh outside linebacker Alex Highsmith said Monday he played through a strained pec during his college career at Charlotte.

“Hopefully everybody is saying a prayer for TJ,” Heyward said.

If Watt is out for an extended period, it may take some divine intervention for the Steelers to build upon their upset in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh was so thin at outside linebacker during the preseason that it acquired Malik Reed from Denver in late August and claimed Jamir Jones off waivers on Sept. 1.

Now Reed and Jones find themselves in the unenviable position of having to potentially fill in for a player who tied an NFL record last season when he racked up 22 1/2 sacks.

Fortunately for Reed, he has some experience with that. He made the Broncos as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2019, then found himself essentially taking over for Von Miller in 2020 when Miller missed the entire season with an ankle injury.

“I feel I got better each and every time I was on the field and each and every year, too,” said Reed, who collected 15 sacks in three seasons in Denver. “So I’m just looking forward to this next opportunity.”

How well Reed and Jones — in his second stint in Pittsburgh after the Steelers released him a year ago — respond to that opportunity could go a long way toward determining whether the victory in Cincinnati was a sign of things to come or just a weird one-off.

WHAT’S WORKING

Heyward said in late July as Pittsburgh reported for training camp that he expected the defense to be the best in the league after a shaky 2021 in which the Steelers finished last against the run.

For a day anyway, Pittsburgh looked the part. While the Bengals managed to move the ball (432 yards), the Steelers pushed around Cincinnati’s retooled offensive line and bought enough time — nearly 70 minutes — for the offense to finally pull it out.

WHAT’S NOT

So much for the shaky play by the offensive line during the preseason being a mirage. Running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combined for 30 yards rushing and Mitch Trubisky spent a fair amount of time throwing off his back foot, with pass rushers in his face.

STOCK UP

Did the Steelers somehow sign safety Minkah Fitzpatrick on the cheap? He made a compelling case that he might be underpaid just three months removed from becoming the highest-paid player at his position in the league. His Pick-6 gave the Steelers an early lead. His blocked extra point attempt forced overtime and his No. 39 appeared to be a fixture around the ball all afternoon.

STOCK DOWN

Rookie wide receiver George Pickens was the breakout star of training camp but went largely unnoticed by Trubisky in the opener. The second-round pick was targeted just three times and caught one pass for three yards. Pickens can’t control where the ball goes, but the decision not to test the Cincinnati secondary by looking for Pickens deep was curious.

INJURIES

Harris left in the fourth quarter with a left foot injury and was seen in the locker room with the foot and left ankle heavily wrapped. The Steelers have made little secret of their desire to lean on Harris until Trubisky gets comfortable. Warren, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent, likely will get the first crack at taking over for Harris.

KEY NUMBER

9-2-1: Pittsburgh’s record in one-score games since the start of the 2021 season. With the team designed to play in tight games, that success will need to continue if the Steelers are going to be a factor in the AFC North.

NEXT STEPS

Figure out a way to do something they haven’t done in a while: beat Bill Belichick when the New England Patriots visit on Sunday.

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