T.J. Watt

Latest On Steelers’ T.J. Watt

Cameron Heyward has received plenty of attention this offseason with his Steelers future in doubt. A fellow mainstay along the team’s defensive front is T.J. Watt, who is under contract for two more years.

[RELATED: J.J. Watt Open To 2024 Steelers Deal]

The latter is playing out the four-year, $112MM extension he inked in 2021. That pact has proven to be a sound investment for Pittsburgh to date; Watt earned Defensive Player of the Year honors in his first season after inking the deal by matching Michael Strahan‘s single-season sack record. He has earned a pair of Pro Bowl invites and another first-team All-Pro nod since then. Entering his age-30 campaign, though, Watt is unsure of how much longer his career will last.

“I don’t know if I want to play forever, but who knows? It is too hard to say,” the former first-rounder said, via Mark Kaboly of The Athletic (subscription required). J.J. [Watt] always said he didn’t want to play super long, then things happened and he ended up playing longer. I won’t know until that moment comes. I feel great right now, so I am kind of just living in the moment.”

The younger Watt brother was limited to 10 games in 2022 due to a torn pectoral muscle. He rebounded well last year, though, leading the league with 19 sacks. His career total in that regard sits at 96.5, and it will be expected to continue climbing as long as Watt remains healthy. The Wisconsin alum’s base salaries over the next two years are not guaranteed, and another year of strong production would help his leverage for a second monster extension depending on his long-term outlook.

As Kaboly notes, the Steelers will limit Watt’s reps in training camp with the goal of keeping him in peak health for the start of the regular season. Managing his offseason workload could become commonplace as the years go by with Pittsburgh (similar to many other teams) aiming to reduce wear and tear prior to the regular and postseason. Watt noted he has yet to win a postseason contest in his decorated career, and for at least the time being that will be his main focus.

Latest On Steelers’ Depth At OLB

Outside linebacker is not a position of need for the Steelers. Star pass rusher T.J. Watt led the NFL last year with 19.0 sacks, and though the team’s other starter Alex Highsmith only notched seven last year, he showed what he’s capable of with a 14.5-sack campaign in 2022. Those two are going to be on the field a majority of the time, but after watching Watt miss the playoffs last year and seeing an aged Markus Golden depart in free agency, Pittsburgh has made a number of offseason moves to solidify their depth at the position.

Last year’s rookie fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin, Nick Herbig, is the only other edge rusher returning from last year’s roster. According to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Herbig is getting first dibs at the OLB3-role in 2024. In his first season of NFL play, Herbig saw less than a quarter of the snaps that Watt and Highsmith did but was up there in playing time with Golden. Despite the limited snaps, Herbig made the most of his time on the field, logging 27 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks, three quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.

That means this year’s rookie third-round pick, NC State’s Payton Wilson, will not be the first outside linebacker off the bench in his first season. Wilson also wasn’t necessarily known as a pass rusher in Raleigh, so it might just mean that Herbig and Wilson will sport different roles in 2024. Herbig may be the first player off the bench in pass rushing situations, and Wilson may be the first guy in during rushing or drop back scenarios. Wilson is on the roster as an outside linebacker for the Steelers as Patrick Queen, Cole Holcomb, and Elandon Roberts patrol the middle. Wilson was disruptive in college, sporting 48.0 tackles for loss to his name, but only logged 15.0 sacks in that time. His versatility as a linebacker with seven career interceptions and 20 passes defensed in college mean that Wilson and Herbig could both be utilized off the bench equally but in very different situations.

Another offseason addition the team made was the claiming of former division-rival Jeremiah Moon off of waivers. A former undrafted player from Florida, Moon spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad for the Ravens but made one start in eight game appearances in 2023. Like Wilson, Moon has never been much of a pass rusher but was an effective tackler during his time in Gainesville.

Joining the position room as rookies alongside Wilson are undrafted signees Julius Welschof and Jacoby Windmon. Windmon, who saw time in college at UNLV and Michigan State, is more in the mold of Wilson and Moon. Welschof, who attended school at Michigan and Charlotte, is a former defensive lineman, though he wasn’t much of an established pass rusher in college.

While Golden only played 70 more snaps in the regular season than Herbig in 2023, when Watt was injured in the playoffs, that OLB3 role became huge. With Watt being no stranger to injury over the past two seasons, who will man that role going forward is an important distinction. As of right now, Herbig is getting the first opportunity to earn that role. He’ll likely hold onto that responsibility as the top pass rusher off the bench while Moon and the rookies fill more versatile roles on the defense in 2024.

Steelers’ T.J. Watt Sustains Grade 2 MCL Sprain

JANUARY 7: Watt has been diagnosed with a Grade 2 MCL sprain, as first reported by brother J.J. Watt via X. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network (video link) says the team has confirmed the news, which represents a best-case scenario. While a Grade 2 sprain will still force T.J. Watt to miss mutliple weeks — thereby sidelining him for the rest of the campaign unless the Steelers qualify for the postseason and make a deep run — the star sack artist has avoided a complete tear and will therefore avoid surgery.

It does not sound as if this injury will have any long-term consequences.

JANUARY 6: The Steelers gave their postseason chances a considerable boost on Saturday, but the victory may have come at a substantial cost. Edge rusher T.J. Watt exited the game with a knee injury, and initial tests point to neither a best- or worst-case scenario.

Watt is believed to have suffered an MCL sprain, as first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate asked to return to the contest – a 17-10 win over the Ravens – but he was not allowed to risk further injury. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network adds that Watt is thought to be dealing with a Grade 3 sprain, which would likely require a multi-week recovery timeline, albeit a much shorter one than a tear or an ACL injury.

Further testing will be done in the near future, and a clearer diagnosis will emerge at that point. An MRI is scheduled for tomorrow, per Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. If the initial fears are proven to be accurate, however, Watt will face a steep challenge to be able to suit up for the Steelers’ wild-card matchup should they qualify for the postseason. Missing him would deal a massive blow to Pittsburgh’s defense.

Watt entered Saturday’s game tied for the league lead in sacks with 17. He added a pair before colliding with teammate Montravius Adams and being forced out of the contest. The 2021 DPOY earned a sixth consecutive Pro Bowl invitation days ago, and he is on track for a fourth first-team All-Pro nod. Given his continued elite production after an injury-shortened 2022 campaign, the Steelers’ edge contingent would be severely shorthanded if he were to miss time.

However, Pittsburgh would still have fellow starter Alex Highsmith available in the event the team managed to reach the wild-card round. Highsmith signed a four-year, $68MM extension this offseason after establishing himself as a productive complement to Watt. The former third-rounder posted seven sacks this season while remaining healthy for every contest. The latter point is a signficant one given not only Watt’s injury, but the signficant ailments suffered by All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and multiple inside linebackers which have left the Steelers’ defense shorthanded.

Provided the ongoing Texans-Colts game does not end in a tie, Pittsburgh will require a loss by at least one of Jacksonville or Buffalo to claim a wild-card berth. In the event the Steelers find themselves playoff-bound, their recent momentum with quarterback Mason Rudolph at the helm could make them a more difficult opponent than their play through much of the season would have suggested. Pending Watt’s tests, though, his health status will be a major storyline to watch.

Steelers’ T.J. Watt Placed In Concussion Protocol

DECEMBER 13: Watt has been officially cleared by an independent neurological consultant and is no longer in concussion protocol, per the team’s senior director of communications Burt Lauten. There is still the matter of the NFL and the NFL Players Association’s review of the Steelers’ handling of his concussion check in the team’s Week 14 contest with the Patriots, but Watt’s removal from the protocol likely hints at no issue.

After Watt took a knee to the head from Elliott and returned after a brief check-in on the sideline, he reported concussion like-symptoms the next day. Obviously a potentially dangerous situation, the league decided it would investigate how the team handled Watt’s potential head injury. We’ve seen lots of seemingly concussed players come out of protocol within a week, so despite his clearance, Watt still may have suffered a concussion and returned to play. The league and the NFLPA has set out to determine whether or not that is the case.

DECEMBER 9: The Steelers’ depth on the edge could be tested next weekend. Following news that pass-rusher Alex Highsmith was placed in concussion protocol, the Steelers have announced that T.J. Watt has also been placed in protocol (via Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com).

The Highsmith news didn’t come as a huge surprise. The linebacker exited Thursday’s loss to the Patriots with a neck injury and didn’t end up returning to the game.

The Watt development is a bit more unexpected. The star defender briefly exited Thursday’s game after taking a knee to the face from Ezekiel Elliott on the first play from scrimmage. Florio writes that Watt was briefly checked for a concussion before being cleared to return on the same drive. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo notes that the medical staff also took an extended look at Watt’s jaw/mouth, and Florio says Watt was spotted wearing a tinted visor at one point.

Mark Kaboly of The Athletic passes along that Watt arrived at the team facility yesterday with symptoms, necessitating his placement into concussion protocol. Both Watt and Highsmith will now need to be cleared by an independent neurologist before returning to practice.

Fortunately, the Steelers have time on their side. Kaboly notes that the Steelers are off the next three days. They’ll resume practices on Tuesday in preparation for their Week 15 game against the Colts next Saturday night.

NFL, NFLPA Reviewing Steelers’ Handling Of T.J. Watt Concussion

T.J. Watt left the Steelers’ Week 14 game after taking a knee to the head from Patriots running back Ezekiel Elliott. Watt returned to action soon after but reported concussion-like symptoms a day later. The Steelers then placed their top defender in concussion protocol.

Watt was briefly checked for a concussion before being cleared to return on the same drive. The Steelers’ medical staff also took an extended look at Watt’s jaw/mouth, and Watt was spotted wearing a tinted visor later in the game. The NFL and NFLPA have since launched a joint investigation into the Steelers’ handling of this injury, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport tweets.

Mike Tomlin said Monday he was unaware Watt had switched to a tinted visor upon returning to action. The switch certainly looks to be a red flag, with an investigation underway.

I assume that he was, but again I’m managing the game,” Tomlin said (via Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio) when asked if he knew Watt was evaluated for a concussion during the game. “I leave that to the medical experts. They essentially tell me whether someone is out, whether they’re subject to return, or whether they’re back. I got a report that he was subject to return and then I got a report that he was back and that was just my knowledge of the details of what transpired with him during the time that he was out in game.”

The investigation will involve interviews with Watt and both team-affiliated and independent medical personnel involved, according to CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones. Both Watt and Alex Highsmith, who did not return to action after exiting Thursday’s game early, are in concussion protocol.

Largest 2023 Cap Hits: Defense

While the NFL’s top 2023 cap hits go to players on offense, a number of pass rushers are tied to lofty figures as well. None check in higher than Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams.

Williams and Chiefs D-tackle Chris Jones carry high contract-year cap hits, while the Steelers’ two front-seven cornerstones each are set to go into training camp with cap figures north of $20MM. As the salary cap climbed to $224.8MM this year, here are the top defensive cap figures as camps near:

  1. Leonard Williams, DL (Giants): $32.26MM
  2. T.J. Watt, OLB (Steelers): $29.37MM
  3. Myles Garrett, DE (Browns): $29.18MM
  4. Chris Jones, DT (Chiefs): $28.29MM
  5. Aaron Donald, DL (Rams): $26MM
  6. Arik Armstead, DT (49ers): $23.95MM
  7. Cameron Heyward, DL (Steelers): $22.26MM
  8. C.J. Mosley, LB (Jets): $21.48MM
  9. Jonathan Allen, DT (Commanders): $21.44MM
  10. Shaquil Barrett, OLB (Buccaneers): $21.25MM
  11. Grady Jarrett, DT (Falcons): $20.63MM
  12. Marlon Humphrey, CB (Ravens): $19.99MM
  13. Shaquille Leonard, LB (Colts): $19.79MM
  14. Kevin Byard, S (Titans): $19.62MM
  15. Adoree’ Jackson, CB (Giants): $19.08MM
  16. Harold Landry, OLB (Titans): $18.8MM
  17. Justin Simmons, S (Broncos): $18.15MM
  18. Jamal Adams, S (Seahawks): $18.11MM
  19. Matt Judon, DE (Patriots): $18.107MM
  20. Quandre Diggs, S (Seahawks): $18.1MM
  21. Nick Bosa, DE (49ers): $17.9MM
  22. DeForest Buckner, DT (Colts): $17.25MM
  23. Emmanuel Ogbah, DE (Dolphins): $17.19MM
  24. DeMarcus Lawrence, DE (Cowboys): $17.11MM
  25. Eddie Jackson, S (Bears): $17.1MM

The Chiefs are working toward a second extension agreement with Jones, who is in the final season of a four-year, $80MM contract. A new deal with the star inside pass rusher would free up cap space, and DeAndre Hopkins is believed to be monitoring this situation.

As for Williams, the Giants had wanted to adjust his deal to reduce his eye-opening cap number. As of mid-June, however, no extension appeared to be on the team’s radar. The previous Giants regime signed off on the 2021 Williams extension (three years, $63MM). The Giants are also uninterested — for the time being, at least — in extending Jackson, who was also a Dave Gettleman-era defensive addition.

Donald is in the second season of a three-year, $95MM deal. The Rams gave Donald a landmark raise last year, convincing the all-everything D-tackle to squash retirement talk. A no-trade clause exists in Donald’s contract, which pays out its guarantees this year. Mosley remains tied to the $17MM-per-year deal the Mike Maccagnan regime authorized with the Jets. That contract, which reset the off-ball linebacker market in 2019, still has two seasons remaining on it due to the deal tolling after Mosley’s 2020 COVID-19 opt-out call. The Jets restructured the deal last year.

Washington now has two D-tackles tied to deals of at least $18MM per year. While Daron Payne‘s pact is worth more ($22.5MM AAV), higher cap hits on that deal will come down the road. Three years remain on Allen’s 2021 agreement. At safety, no team is spending like the Seahawks. In addition to the big-ticket deals authorized for Adams and Diggs, Seattle gave ex-Giants starter Julian Love a two-year, $6MM accord in March.

New Titans GM Ran Carthon attempted to give Byard a pay cut. That request did not go over well, but the standout safety remains with the team and has not requested a trade. Tennessee re-signed Landry on a five-year, $87.5MM deal in 2022; the veteran edge rusher has yet to play on that deal due to the ACL tear he sustained just before last season.

The 49ers can bring Bosa’s number down via an extension, which has long been on the team’s docket. As San Francisco extended Deebo Samuel just after training camp began last year, Bosa received back-burner treatment due to the fifth-year option. The star defensive end’s price undoubtedly went up during the waiting period, with the former No. 2 overall pick earning Defensive Player of the Year acclaim in the fourth year of his rookie contract.

J.J. Watt Contemplated Joining Steelers In 2021

J.J. Watt is set to join CBS as a broadcaster this season to begin his next football chapter, but the future Hall of Famer recently reflected on his free agency in 2021. That process nearly resulted in a deal which would have allowed him to team up with his brothers in Pittsburgh.

Watt was one of the league’s most high-profile free agents that offseason, with his historic Texans tenure having come to an end. A Steelers accord would have allowed J.J. to play with fullback Derek Watt and fellow edge rusher T.J. Watt. The latter inked a monster extension that year, though, averaging $28MM per season (the highest AAV ever given to a pass rusher, and the still the second-highest figure amongst all NFL defenders to this day). The elder Watt was hesitant to have his own free agency interfere with the Steelers’ extension for T.J.

“They were on the list,” Watt said of the Steelers when reflecting on his decision-making process (Twitter link). “It certainly would have been awesome to play with my brothers, but T.J. was also going through the contract situation there, so the last thing I wanted to do was come in and take any money away from his contract.”

In the end, J.J. Watt inked a two-year deal with the Cardinals and he finished his career in Arizona. Returning to full health, he remained highly productive with 12.5 sacks on the year. Rather than extending his career in another new home, however, he elected to go out on a personal high note and hang up his cleats.

The Steelers have certainly not been short on edge production during T.J. Watt’s tenure, though adding his brother to the mix would have given the team even more firepower in that regard. Instead, the past two seasons in particular have seen Alex Highsmith emerge as not only a bonafide starter, but a pass rusher due a substantial raise on a new Steelers deal. Talks on the extension front are ongoing, but mutual interest exists to get a contract worked out this summer, perhaps as early as training camp later this month.

Provided Highsmith is on the books beyond 2023 when the new season kicks off, Pittsburgh will remain in good hands in the pass-rushing department for years to come. The prospect of J.J. Watt finishing his career as a Steeler is certainly one which will lead to what if-type questions being asked now and in the future, though.

Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick Out With Appendicitis; OLB T.J. Watt Activated

6:00pm: After undergoing an appendectomy to deal with the appendicitis Fitzpatrick suffered through in walkthroughs today, the two-time All-Pro safety is expected to miss multiple weeks in recovery, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The Steelers will want Fitzpatrick back on the field as soon as possible, but typically, appendectomies have resulted in missing more than one week. Schefter points at the most recent major player to undergo the procedure as an example. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow underwent the surgery just before training camp and missed two-and-a-half weeks.

A similar-length absence would see Fitzpatrick miss tomorrow’s game and next weekend’s matchup vs the Bengals. An extra day means that he could return in time for the team’s Monday night game in Indianapolis the week after, but that’s an extremely optimistic timeline.

Behind Norwood, whom we mentioned below as the likely replacement, Pittsburgh recently returned Damontae Kazee from IR. They’ll also have Miles Killebrew and the practice squad elevation, Riley.

2:09pm: The Steelers have been looking forward to the return of star pass rusher T.J. Watt from injured reserve this week but are now expected to be without safety Minkah Fitzpatrick who is reportedly dealing with appendicitis, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. The team has also officially activated Watt from IR and placed cornerback William Jackson III on IR.

Fitzpatrick is set to miss his first game of the season and just the second game of his career. Despite the team’s struggles this year, Fitzpatrick has maintained a high level of play. He has been all over the defensive backfield this year racking up six passes defensed along with three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. Being only halfway through the season, Fitzpatrick is on track for career highs in both numbers, assuming he can make a quick return from his appendicitis.

In the lone game Fitzpatrick has missed before this, which occurred last season, the Steelers started then-rookie seventh-round pick Tre Norwood in his place. Norwood had already made two starts at the time, being one of the first defensive backs off the bench in packages that called for five or six defensive backs, but that was his first game playing 100% of the team’s defensive snaps and playing specifically in Fitzpatrick’s role. The Steelers’ pass defense struggled that day in a loss to the Chargers in which quarterback Justin Herbert passed for nearly 400 yards. It’s hard to blame the loss on Norwood’s stand-in performance, but considering the Steelers finished 2021 as a top-10 passing defense, one can infer some importance concerning Fitzpatrick’s absence. This year, Norwood started in place of an injured Terrell Edmunds in a Week 5 matchup against the Bills. Again, correlation does not exactly equal causation, but the team’s pass defense once again struggled as quarterback Josh Allen passed for 424 yards and four touchdowns on only 20 completions.

The return of Watt should be heralded in the Steel City as a giant addition to the defense. Outside of outside linebacker Alex Highsmith and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, the Steelers have struggled to produce an effective pass rush. Pittsburgh will gladly welcome pack their star defender who produced 22.5 sacks in only 15 games last season. Returning the reigning Defensive Player of the Year back to the field may not totally make up for the absence of Fitzpatrick, but it sure helps.

Jackson has yet to make his Steelers debut after being traded from the Commanders 11 days ago, and his debut will have to wait at least four more games after being placed on IR. Jackson had already missed the past three games for Washington while dealing with a back injury. Even though the season is only half over, the Steelers are far enough back in the division race that there is no sense in rushing Jackson to return from a back injury before he’s ready.

Lastly, in response to Fitzpatrick’s absence, the Steelers have elevated safety Elijah Riley from the practice squad for this weekend’s game against the Saints.

T.J. Watt Planning To Play In Week 10

Having identified Week 10 as the T.J. Watt return point for a bit now, the Steelers have not seen anything interfere with that plan. Watt said Friday he will play against the Saints on Sunday.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year does not expect to be on a snap count, via The Athletic’s Mike DeFabo (on Twitter). Watt has been out since Week 1. A pectoral injury initially caused this hiatus, but Watt underwent knee surgery during his chest recovery. That lengthened the timetable.

Pittsburgh is in danger of its first sub-.500 season since 2003. The team is 1-6 without Watt, who entered the season having never missed more than two games in an NFL campaign previously. Only one Steelers edge rusher (Alex Highsmith) has more than one sack this season. Watt tallied a sack during his abbreviated opener, but Highsmith (team-high 6.5) has not received too much help from the team’s Watt-less outside linebacker contingent.

Watt, 28, is coming off a season in which he tied Michael Strahan‘s official sack record with 22.5, getting there in just 15 games. This season is the first on the four-year, $112MM extension Watt signed just before the start of the 2021 campaign. Watt’s streak of three straight first-team All-Pro honors will come to an end this year, but the Steelers can certainly benefit from their pass-rushing anchor returning.

The Steelers activated safety Damontae Kazee from IR on Thursday, but Watt will only be the team’s second IR activation this year. Pittsburgh let fourth-round pick Calvin Austin‘s IR-return window close without an activation; the fourth-round rookie wideout is now on season-ending IR. Watt’s window would close Nov. 16.

The Steelers gave the star edge defender nearly the full return window to prepare for his return. Despite pectoral injuries often leading to season-ending injuries, Watt avoided surgery and has gone through multiple weeks of practice. It will be interesting to see what kind of boost the former first-rounder can provide to a team that ranks 29th in total defense.

Steelers Still Eyeing Week 10 T.J. Watt Return

Last week, the Steelers opened the IR-return window on T.J. Watt, leading to questions of when they would envision his return. Despite this Sunday marking the second week in which the defending Defensive Player of the Year could be activated, that remains unlikely to happen.

Watt has been sidelined since suffering a major pectoral injury in Week 1. The fact that he was able to rehab it left the door open to a return at some point in the season, but it came as no surprise that he was placed on IR. His timeline to see the field was pushed back, however, when he underwent knee surgery just under one month ago.

Given Pittsburgh’s struggles this year, along with Watt’s crucial importance to the team, the Steelers have remained understandably cautious with him. Indeed, as confirmed by Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Week 10 has always remained the target with respect to Watt’s return (Twitter link). That contest against the Saints would be the last opportunity for Watt to be activated; if he fails to return by next week, he will be out for the remainder of the season.

While Pittsburgh sits at 2-6, leaving their chances of a postseason berth – or, at a minimum, extending their streak of never having a losing season during the Mike Tomlin era – in serious doubt, Watt returning to the fold would of course be a welcomed sight. In his absence, the team ranks 21st in the league with 15 sacks, a far cry from their normal position in that regard during the 28-year-old’s standout career.

The Steelers are on their bye this week, which gives both Watt and safety Damontae Kazee time to ease back into game shape. While November 13 will be the team’s first contest since trading away Chase Claypool in a significant move on offense, then, it should also see a pair of important defenders make their return to the field.