T.J. Watt's impact was immediate and obvious
T.J. Watt returned to the Pittsburgh Steelers lineup and helped lead a dominant defensive performance in their 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium.
Just as I resigned myself to the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers being a lost cause in a lost season they are going to pull me back in enough to make me angry.
The return of T.J. Watt, as well as a second half schedule that features a lot of teams just as crappy (if not crappier) than them at least creates the illusion that they might be able to turn this thing around and salvage the season. Maybe. Perhaps somewhat.
They took their first step towards that on Sunday with a 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints that was highlighted by a dominant defensive performance and (quite surprisingly) a dominant running game.
This is going to have to be the recipe moving forward, and the return of Watt (not to mention safety Damontae Kazee) might at least help them achieve that.
Or at least give them a chance to achieve it.
Watt changes the entire dynamic of the defense
The funny thing about the defensive performance on Sunday is that Watt did not post dominant numbers.
He had a couple of tackles, did not record a sack or a forced fumble, and did not make any major splash plays. But his presence was still noticeable. He was at the center of a lot of plays in the running game, created pressure on Saints quarterback Andy Dalton, and drew enough attention to free up players like Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith (who did record a sack and a forced fumble).
He is that sort of game-changing presence, and every number available to us shows it.
When Watt plays the Steelers record is that of a playoff team (they are 1-10 in his career without him in the lineup), they record an extra 1.5 sacks per game, and allow seven fewer points on average. He is their best player and their MVP by every objective and subjective definition.
Sunday’s overall defensive performance was downright dominant, forcing two turnovers and a forced fumble, while only allowing the Saints to cross mid-field on just two of their possessions (the two second quarter scoring drives). The Saints also did not have a single play of more than 18 yards on offense all day. Yeah, it was against a bad team, but it was their best defensive performance as a team since their Week 1 win against the Cincinnati Bengals.
You can only play the team lined up across from you, and that is what you are supposed to do to bad teams. You dominate them. The Steelers did that.
As I wrote here going into Sunday’s game, I do not think it is a stretch to think the Steelers could have an extra two or three wins this season if Watt had been healthy all along. They might beat New England with him. Maybe Cleveland. Probably definitely the New York Jets. Looking ahead at the second half schedule there are a lot of winnable games there against sub-par teams (another game with Cleveland, Carolina, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Atlanta) while two of their toughest games are AFC North games at home against the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. They typically play well in those games no matter what sort of season they are having. Especially against Baltimore.
There are winnable games there. Outside of the Buffalo and Philadelphia games every game they have played this season has been largely competitive with a very narrow margin within them. A better offense would fix most of the problems, but a better defense can certainly narrow the gap a little.
I am not saying the Steelers are going to make the playoffs (they are not), but I do not think we should write off the possibility of them scratching out some more ugly wins and making the season look a little more respectable now that Watt is back and in in the lineup to disrupt things against some other bad teams.