The Week 1 opponent of the Buffalo Bills, the Pittsburgh Steelers, surged to an 11-0 start last season with help from a smothering defense—one that finished the year in the top five of most stat categories. While Buffalo wasn’t one of them, several teams struggled against the talented units featuring All-Pros Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt.
Now, though, the defense has seen a few changes. Edge rusher Bud Dupree, who had eight sacks last season, is now a Tennessee Titan. That promoted Alex Highsmith (two sacks, five TFLs) to a starting role. The Steelers also have 32-year-old Melvin Ingram, who missed nine games with a knee injury last year, as their primary backup.
But the situation is apparently more complicated than that. Watt, arguably the best player on that defense, wants a new contract. He’s currently signed to the fifth-year option of his rookie contract from the 2017 NFL Draft. The Steelers haven’t finalized any changes to his deal, and that’s created friction all summer.
As ESPN reporter Brooke Pryor notes, Watt has taken the stance of a “hold-in” during training camp. He’s shown up to practice, but only participated in individual training sessions, and none of the team segments. It’s a halfhearted gesture toward participation in the workouts, but the message is still the same: “I’m not all-in yet.”
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler adds that the clock is now ticking for whether Watt will play at all this week. There are two complicating factors: First, that the Steelers hesitate to play players who haven’t fully participated in practice before a game. Second, that the Steelers tend to shut down any contract negotiations once the season begins.
The Bills mostly held Watt in check last year, with the edge rusher finishing with only two QB hits and two tackles, plus a pass deflection. They’re also running back nearly an identical offense to the unit that beat Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, their path to victory would be dramatically wider if Watt didn’t play this week. It all comes down to the standoff between Watt and the organization he plays for.