PITTSBURGH – T.J. Watt is watching from the sideline in sweatpants and wearing a headset, trying to keep track of a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that desperately misses his menace and production.
All the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year has learned while spending six weeks recovering from a torn left pectoral and minor knee surgery is that he's not ready to be a coach and to never take his health or his career for granted.
“It sucks not being able to practice and not being able to play, but when you come back, it makes you cherish it that much more and it makes you want it that much more,” Watt said Friday.
So much, in fact, that Watt isn't ready to rule himself out when Pittsburgh (2-5) t ravels to unbeaten Philadelphia (6-0) on Sunday, even if head coach Mike Tomlin said it's “highly unlikely” that one of the league's best edge rushers will be available.
“I feel encouraged about where I'm at right now,” said Watt, who returned to practice on Wednesday.
Watt didn’t feel that way late in the fourth quarter of the season opener against Cincinnati when he felt a painful twinge on the left side of his chest as he tried to sack Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. Watt walked off the field clutching himself and telling team physicians “I tore it."
“I've had muscle pulls before,” Watt said. “You feel some sort of pop or snap and you know immediately it's not good. It was just a matter of how bad it was and it just took us 24-48 hours to figure out the severity of it.”
Fortunately for Watt, an injury that can sometimes be season-ending proved to be only season-altering. That doesn't mean it's been easy for Watt to spend more than a month as a well-paid de facto assistant coach while Pittsburgh's defense has struggled to generate a pass rush without him.
The Steelers took down Burrow seven times in the opener. They've managed just five sacks total over the last six games without Watt and barely touched Miami's Tua Tagoviola last week, registering just one quarterback hit in a 16-10 loss.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to get pressure and we’ve got to finish,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said.
A job that's much easier with Watt's familiar No. 90 wreaking his own unique personal brand of havoc. In Cincinnati, Watt appeared ready to pick up right where he left off in 2021 when he tied an NFL record by collecting 22 1/2 sacks. One strange twist of his left arm and he was down for an extended time for the first time in his six-year career.
He's done his best to stay engaged, offering encouragement and insight during games while roaming the sideline with a headset on. The eavesdropping has given him an appreciation for the defensive coaching staff and reinforced something he already knew — that he's far more effective on the field than off it.
“There's so much that I never expected to be going on, going on in that headset as far as strategy and play calls and all that," Watt said. “It's too much going on for me. I can't wait to take that thing off and play.”
Watt's preference would be to find a way to sneak into the huddle against the Eagles. It's more likely the Steelers wait until after next week's bye to turn Watt loose.
As anxious as the 28-year-old Watt is to get back out there, he understands there's far more at stake for him and the franchise than the outcome of a single game. He's signed through the 2025 season and has become the face of the franchise following Ben Roethlisberger's retirement.
Pittsburgh finds itself in the middle of a youth movement on offense with rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. To stay competitive, the defense needs to be among the best in the league. When Watt is in the lineup, it's possible. Without him, one of the AFC's perennial playoff contenders has fallen well off the pace.
Any chance at salvaging 2022 involves Watt doing Watt things. It just may have to wait until Nov. 13 when New Orleans visits Acrisure Stadium. Watt will wait if he has to, even if it’s through gritted teeth.
“The Steelers have invested in me and want me to be here long-term, I want to be here long-term,” Watt said. “I want to play at a high level.”
It's one of the reasons why Watt has been so visible during practice, even if it's been in a somewhat limited role. He doesn't want to ease back into things. When he's cleared, he wants to be ready to go full tilt.
“I’m always going to try to find a way to get better and not just be a slouch, you know, sit on the couch, eat potato chips and ice whatever body part of I’m icing," he said. "I’m always trying to find a way so that when I come back, the acclimation period is as quick as possible."
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