With the apparent permanent loss of sensational inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, due to the horrific spinal injury he suffered in a Monday night game against the Bengals last December 4 in Cincinnati, the Steelers‘ defense appears to be severely lacking in the play-maker department as the team sets its sights on free-agency and the upcoming draft.
But while it is true that Pittsburgh may never effectively replace the talents that Shazier brought to the defense before his injury–even though the organization must make that a top priority this spring–this doesn’t mean the unit doesn’t have a potential replacement, at least in terms of someone it can count on to make big plays at key moments.
- I’m talking about outside linebacker T.J. Watt, a rookie sensation in 2017 if there ever was one.
Unlike some other defensive rookies in previous years, Watt appeared to be the real deal right from the onset of OTAs and training camp, and he continued to impress in live action, starting with two sacks in his very first preseason game against the Giants.
Speaking of two sacks, Watt recorded two official ones in a Week 1 win over the Browns on September 10. Along with those two sacks–and two more quarterback pressures–Watt displayed the kind of athleticism that–no offense to him–the legendary James Harrison couldn’t even have dreamed of in his prime, when the rookie skied high in the air to pull down an interception thrown by fellow rookie DeShone Kizer.
All throughout 2017, Watt continued to show that his football bloodlines ran deep (his older brother is the famous J.J. Watt) and displayed the kind of all-around talent not seen at the outside linebacker position in Pittsburgh arguably since Chad Brown manned the position in 1996.
In-fact, Watt was the only linebacker in the entire league–rookie or veteran–who had a stat-line that consisted of at least 50 tackles (52), five sacks (seven), five passes defensed (seven) and an interception (one).
Watt also demonstrated he might have that all-important clutch gene, as evidenced by, among other things, a blocked field goal in a game against the Titans in Week 11; and, more importantly, a strip sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco three weeks later, a play that effectively clinched the AFC North for Pittsburgh.
- Does this mean the Steelers shouldn’t put a top priority on finding another capable inside linebacker?
Of course not.
- Does this mean T.J. Watt should be that inside linebacker, as has been suggested by some pundits and fans alike?
Of course not.
Ryan Shazier was the Steelers greatest defensive play-maker since the legendary Troy Polamalu made life miserable for opposing offenses for well-over a decade, but unlike Polamalu, Shazier was no safety.
Defensive play-makers–those terrors that keep opposing offensive coordinators up late at night–they come in all shapes and sizes…and can play just about any position.
T.J. Watt, outside linebacker, Wisconsin, just might be the Steelers next great defensive play-maker.