T.J. Watt injury: Steelers star edge rusher goes down against Bengals

Reigning DPOY T.J. Watt went down for the Steelers on Sunday, and he appeared to tell Pittsburgh's training staff, "I tore my pec."

T.J. Watt, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, could be out awhile — potentially for the rest of the season. After being injured against the Cincinnati Bengals, Watt quickly went to the locker room and appeared to say, “I tore my pec” to the Steelers’ training staff.

Pittsburgh does indeed believe Watt tore his pectoral muscle, and he’ll undergo further tests on Monday to confirm that devastating diagnosis, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

T.J. Watt suffers potentially serious injury

Watt, 27, is arguably the best defensive player in football behind Aaron Donald. He’s put up 37.5 sacks over the past two seasons, and he’s the center point of the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ defensive attack.

The Steelers’ defense was a terror on Sunday, picking off Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow four times while racking up seven sacks. The unit may not post an effort that strong every Sunday, but they’ll need to be effective to support an offense that lacks star power at quarterback and along the offensive line.

There’s no replacing someone like Watt, but the Steelers may have a budding star in Alex Highsmith, who posted three sacks against Cincinnati. A third-round pick out of Charlotte in 2020, Highsmith played 76% of the Steelers’ defensive snaps in 2021 — fourth-most on the team — while managing six sacks and 38 pressures.

He’s also an elite run defender. Highsmith flashes excellent awareness in the run game, regularly showing the ability to set the edge and play contain. Last season, Highsmith finished tied for sixth in ESPN’s run-block win rate (29%).

General manager Omar Khan added a bit more pass-rushing depth in the preseason, sending a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Denver Broncos in exchange for Malik Reed and a 2023 seventh-rounder. Reed isn’t a star, and the dropoff from Watt to Reed is obviously massive. But Reed is a quality veteran to have around in the event of an injury, and he put up eight sacks as recently as 2020.

If the Steelers look for external options, the best free agent EDGE is Jason Pierre-Paul. He took a step backward in 2021, posting just 2.5 sacks in 12 games while being bothered by a shoulder injury and a broken finger. Now 33 years old, JPP underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason before drawing interest from the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens.

Pittsburgh could also consider trading for Chicago Bears veteran Robert Quinn, who isn’t a fit for the rebuilding Chicago roster. Although he’s 32 years old, Quinn posted 18.5 sacks last season. The Steelers would need to create a little cap space to fit Quinn’s $12.8 million salary, but they could work out the financials if they believe he could help replace Watt.

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