Steelers Come Out of Week 1 with a Big Win and a Big Loss

(Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)

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Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers did not fail to entertain fans with an exciting return to NFL football.  In a game that featured just about everything, the Steelers squeaked out a 23-20 win against the Cincinnati Bengals in the final seconds of overtime.  I wrote last week that I had my eyes on the defense going into this game and they certainly lived up to the expectations.  It was an early statement game by this unit, but unfortunately, it didn't come without a potential long-term cost.

Last week, I discussed how the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers were going to go as far as the defense would allow them, and this game turned out to be a prime example of that.  The offense showed flashes of success over the course of the game, but for the most part, it was a pretty lackluster performance out of them.  Thus, the onus turned to the defense to keep the team in it, and they did just that.  Against the AFC representative in last year's Super Bowl, they forced five turnovers (four interceptions and one fumble) and sacked Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow seven times.  Those are incredible numbers against a team that possesses one of the best offenses in the entire league.

It was evident from the start that the defense was taking matters into their own hands.  With all of the questions surrounding the offense and its production, they needed to be the keystone to this team and they showed that yesterday.  From the get-go, they were flying around all of the over the field.  On the Bengals first possession, lineman Cam Heyward sacked Burrow for five yards on the first play and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Burrow for a touchdown on the second play.  He got the Steelers out to an early 7-0 lead and the tone was immediately set that the defense was here to play.

I wish I could say it was all smooth sailing from that point, but I sadly can't.  While it felt like the Steelers were in control for most of the game, the offense's inability to put points on the board kept the door ajar for the Bengals to make a comeback.  And that they did.  The Steelers led 17-6 at halftime but after only scoring 3 points in the second half, the Bengals roared all the way back, tying the game 20-20 with two seconds remaining in the fourth quarter with a go ahead extra point upcoming.

With the game all but over, Fitzpatrick took matters into his own hands once again, blocking the game-winning extra point and sending the game into overtime.  After missed field goals by both teams in overtime, Boswell got redemption as the clock expired, sending the Steelers out of Week 1 with a 53-yard game-winning field goal.  Going on the road against a division opponent as a touchdown underdog in Week 1 and escaping with a win in this fashion is pretty spectacular.  I wish I could go on about how great of a game it was and how the team will carry this momentum into next week, but as the headline reads, the Steelers also came out of this big win with an equally big loss.

Towards the end of the game, two key players exited the game with injuries.  Running back Najee Harris left with a leg injury after getting bent backwards on a run and edge rusher T.J. Watt left with a pectoral injury during a sack attempt on Burrow.  As Watt was leaving the field, you could see him mouth the words "I tore my pec," causing great fear for Steelers fans everywhere.  Ultimately, neither would return to the game.  While reports following the game reported that Harris' injury is not considered serious and he may able to return next week, the same cannot be said for Watt.

Early reports indicate that Watt did indeed tear his pectoral muscle.  While nothing has officially been announced at the time of this writing, such an injury would sideline him for at least two months, most likely longer.  The reason I say at least two months is that his brother, J.J., sustained the same injury a few years ago and was able to return in only two months, way ahead of schedule for his initial timetable to return.  We can only hope that such quick bounce backs run in the Watt DNA.  However, regardless of how long he is actually out, Watt's absence from this defense will be greatly felt.

While I would consider Fitzpatrick the player of the game yesterday, Watt was not far behind.  He had six tackles, three of which were for a loss, as well as a sack and an interception.  He was in Burrow's face all game and he put to shame the hype surrounding the additions to the Bengals' offensive line heading into this season.  Burrow was facing pressure in the pocket all game long and Watt is a big reason why.

Last season, when Watt missed time with a groin injury, there was a noticeable drop off in the defense's play.  His play was so good that he was still able to win Defensive Player of the Year and tie the single season sack record while missing games.  That's a lot of production to try to replace, especially when the defense is the heart of this team.  

The good news is that there's no shortage of playmakers on this Steelers defense.  Fitzpatrick evidenced this pretty well with his stellar play yesterday and Heyward is still one of the best guys up in the middle in the league.  Overshadowed by everything else that happened yesterday, it should be mentioned that other edge rusher Alex Highsmith recorded three sacks, creating quite a bit of disruption on his own.  So, while we may see a drop off yet again, I have my fingers crossed that it won't be too steep.

Yesterday's game was a rollercoaster of emotions and while I'm thankful to see the Steelers escape with a 1-0 start to the season, I can't shake the injury concerns coming out of the game.  Hopefully we can get more clarity on both Watt and Harris in the coming days.  I'm fearing the worst with Watt but trying to stay positive that he'll be able to return midseason.  

Yet, the season still marches on and the Steelers will be looking to build upon their big win next week when they host the New England Patriots in their first home game of the season.  Be on the lookout for my article later this week talking about this matchup and the latest (hopefully encouraging) injury news on both Watt and Harris.