CINCINNATI -- The Pittsburgh Steelers defense began the season Sunday looking like a vulturous force, and reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt was the chief disruptor.
Then Watt walked off injured in the fourth quarter, his left arm hanging limply at this side, casting serious doubt on when Pittsburgh might look so fearsome again.
Watt suffered a pectoral injury in the fourth quarter of a 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
The Steelers didn't provide many details after the game. Coach Mike Tomlin said only that “T.J. has been evaluated with an upper-body injury."
The 27-year-old Watt got hurt in the waning minutes of regulation. He bull-rushed his way past Cincinnati right tackle La'el Collins — ripping Collins' helmet off in the process, a penalty that gave the Bengals a first down — and then jumped on top of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow ducked under Watt and managed to get the ball away, and Watt's left arm went motionless as Burrow eluded his grasp.
Watt was greeted by Dr. James Bradley, the team physician, as he made his way off the field. He went straight to the locker room and did not return. Pittsburgh later ended a three-game losing streak to the Bengals on the final play of overtime.
The three-time All-Pro did not address reporters postgame, though he was in the locker room. He is expected to undergo further testing and evaluation on Monday.
“I'm not going to speculate what's going and how bad the injury is,” defensive tackle Cam Heyward said. “But you know having T.J. out there definitely benefits us. He's a leader. He's a defensive player here. However long it takes, other guys are going to step up.”
One of the NFL's elite edge rushers, Watt was at his disruptive best in Cincinnati, sacking Burrow once and picking off a pass in the first quarter that set up Mitch Trubisky’s 2-yard TD pass to Najee Harris to give Pittsburgh a 17-3 lead.
Losing Watt would be a huge blow to the Steelers, who will have to rely on their defense while trying to get their offense on track. Watt tied the NFL single-season sacks record with 22 1/2 last season despite missing two games.
If Watt tore his pectoral muscle, he likely would miss extended time and potentially the season. His older brother J.J. Watt tore a pec in the middle of the 2019 season while playing for Texas and missed two months. Heyward, his longtime teammate, missed the second half of the 2016 season after tearing a pec, and former Steeler defensive end Stephon Tuitt missed the final 10 games of the 2019 season after tearing a pec in a win over the Chargers.
The Steelers are thin behind Watt at outside linebacker. Alex Highsmith — who also left the game on Sunday with an injury — is the only other outside linebacker on the roster who has spent extended time in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers acquired backup Malik Reed in a trade with Denver last month and claimed Jamir Jones off waivers on Sept. 1 after he was released by Jacksonville a day earlier. Jones did spend a few months with Pittsburgh in 2021 before being released last September.
Jones and Reed were credited with three combined tackles against the Bengals.
Watt has been durable during his five-year career, missing just three games due to injury. With him, the Steelers have a defense with elite players at all three levels, in Watt, Heyward and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Without him, Pittsburgh's offense under first-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky might need to accelerate the learning curve.
That might be difficult without Harris, who left in the fourth quarter after injuring his left foot. The foot was heavily wrapped postgame. Backup Jaylen Warren, who earned the job after a stellar training camp, ran for 7 yards on three carries in his NFL debut.
The Steelers host New England (0-1) next Sunday.
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