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Bills vs. Steelers: Analyzing Pittsburgh’s defense without LB T.J. Watt

The numbers paint a drab picture

Photo from Nick Wojton Bills Wire

In the 2021 Buffalo Bills’ home opener, 70,000 NFL fans sat in Highmark Stadium watching the Pittsburgh Steelers pull off an upset in a clunker of a game. The Bills outgained the Steelers 371 yards to 253, but a blocked put returned for a touchdown and a dominant performance from the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt boosted Pittsburgh to victory. Watt finished with three tackles, two sacks, one tackle for a loss, and one forced fumble.

His speed, explosiveness, and drive are all evident on this play from last year (embedded in the tweet below) where he sacked and stripped quarterback Josh Allen.

Watt would go on to have a season for the record books with 22.5 sacks, 68 total tackles, and seven forced fumbles in 15 games. The 22.5 sacks tied defensive end Michael Strahan’s sack record, while the 1.5 sacks per game was second-best all time behind defensive end Reggie White’s 1.75 in 1987. This coming off the 2020 season, where Watt also led the league in sacks with 15. Needless to say, Watt is a game wrecker for the Steelers, and he can single-handedly alter the outcome of a game with his big-play ability.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Watt has recently struggled playing a full season, having been sidelined by injuries the past two seasons. He was forced to exit four games early in 2021 dealing with hip, knee, and groin injuries. This year, Watt tore his pectoral muscle in the season opener against the Bengals (after forcing a fumble and having an interception in a 23-20 overtime win).

To see his impact directly, we have to dive into the statictics. Watt has played 78 games for the Steelers in his career, and the team has amassed a 52-24-2 record in those contests. The team defense allows a stout 20.4 points per game while averaging 3.5 sacks per game.

In the seven games Watt has missed, Pittsburgh’s record is 0-7. The defense as a whole unit has allowed nearly one more touchdown per game, averaging 26.4 points per game against, and gets nearly two sacks less per game (1.6 per game without Watt). Tommy Jaggi, an editor for Still Curtain, did a great job creating a side-by-side graphic detailing the stark difference for the team with and without Watt.

Head coach Mike Tomlin has spent 15 seasons building a winning culture, never posting a losing season under his direction. His 0-7 record without Watt is a head-scratcher, but becomes even more disheartening for Steelers fans when looking at the opposing signal callers who have been victorious in those games. Zach Wilson, Jacoby Brissett, Mac Jones, Baker Mayfield, Mike Glennon, Joe Burrow, and Justin Herbert have all led their teams to wins over T.J. Watt-less Steeler teams. Outside of Burrow and Herbert, these aren’t star quarterbacks. The lack of a pass rush has stressed the secondary—a unit now forced to remain in coverage longer each play. Watt is the rare player who makes the players around him better. No matter what Tomlin draws up, it doesn’t replace the true impact Watt brings to the field.

Tomlin will have his hands full this Sunday. Along with no Watt, the Steelers are pivoting at quarterback to give Kenny Pickett his first career start. Pickett will be thrown into the fire against Buffalo’s second-ranked defense in the league—a defense that already gives veteran quarterbacks all they can handle.

Pittsburgh also has the tall task of defending against Allen and Buffalo’s high-flying offense on their home turf. Ranking third in the NFL through four games, the Bills are averaging 412.5 yards per game and 28.5 points per game. Remember, even with Watt playing last year, the Bills were still able to gain 371 yards. This year it could get downright ugly for the Steelers. By being a 14-point underdog for the first time since the NFL merger (1970), sports books everywhere think this game will get out of hand.

Despite being the big favorite, Buffalo will have their own injuries to worry about on Sunday. Safety Jordan Poyer, coming off one of his best games with the Bills, and tight end Dawson Knox were both ruled out for Week 5. Buffalo has shown it has the depth to win while dealing with injuries, as evidenced by the 3-1 record these last four weeks. I expect this trend to continue, as head coach Sean McDermott and company look to notch another AFC win early in the season.

Prediction: Bills 31, Steelers 13.

What’s your prediction for the game? Leave a comment and let me know! As always you can hear our show: Not Another Buffalo Podcast with my co-hosts Jon and Pat every Wednesday and Friday as we cover the Bills and talk sports betting for the football weekend ahead.