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Pittsburgh Steelers star T.J. Watt is likely to avoid surgery, could return before Week 9 bye

Matt Johnson
T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense suffered a massive blow in Week 1 with the T.J. Watt injury, but the reigning Defensive Player of the Year might not miss as much time as initially feared.

Watt knew immediately as he left the field on Sunday that he tore his pectoral muscle, forcing him to exit the field and not return. The All-Pro pass rusher and the organization both feared that the injury would require surgery, forcing him to miss the remainder of the 2022 NFL season.

Related: Pittsburgh Steelers schedule

According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, the belief now is that Watt will not require surgery. While he is headed to receive a second and third evaluation to confirm the diagnosis from multiple doctors, there is a confidence that Pittsburgh avoided the worst-case scenario.

Even if Watt avoids surgery, Pittsburgh will need to place him on injured reserve. It requires him to miss a minimum of four games, but it also opens up a valuable roster spot for the Steelers. Considering the sudden lack of depth at outside linebacker, it’s a roster spot the team needs.

In a best-case scenario, Watt could reportedly return in six weeks. It means Pittsburgh’s best player could possibly make it back for the “Sunday Night Football” matchup against the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 23 or a Week 8 contest against the Philadelphia Eagles.

There is still a possibility that the medical staff opts to exercise caution, sidelining Watt through the end of October. If that happens, with Pittsburgh taking advantage of its Week 9 bye, Watt would return in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints.

Impact of T.J. Watt injury on Steelers’ defense

NFL: Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There is some history to look back upon to see how the Steelers’ defense performs when Watt isn’t on the field. He missed two games in 2021 (Week 3 and Week 11) and didn’t play in the Week 16 game in 2020 when Pittsburgh rested its starters.

Related: NFL defense rankings

In that Week 3 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh’s defense failed to generate much pressure on quarterback Joe Burrow. The Steelers failed to record a quarterback hit and Pro Football Focus credited three of the Bengals’ offensive linemen with zero pressures allowed. Pittsburgh ultimately lost the game 24-10.

Playing without Watt in Week 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Steelers defense was shredded by quarterback Justin Herbert. He completed 30-of-41 passes with 382 passing yards, three touchdowns and a 116.1 passer rating in a 41-37 victory.

Pittsburgh’s pass rush did sack Herbert twice and it recorded five quarterback hits, but it didn’t generate nearly the same level of pressure as it would have with Watt on the field.

Looking ahead to the upcoming schedule, Watt’s absence will be the most damaging for the Steelers defensively in Week 5 (Buffalo Bills) and Week 6 (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). There should also be a reason to worry about the Week 3 matchup against the Cleveland Browns, who have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

A step backward is unavoidable for however long T.J. Watt is sidelined. While the Steelers will try and find ways to soften the blow, this absence will put more pressure on the offense to step up after a rough Week 1 performance.