The Steelers defense put on an unforgettable show Sunday and stole a win from the reigning AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals. Unfortunately the losses suffered during the game may be catastrophic for the Steelers.
Sunday’s wild finish to the opener is one that Steelers fans and players will remember for a very long time. In what was the most viewed regional game window for CBS since 1998, the week one grudge match had it all. One handed catches, big time plays on defense, a back up long snapper and a whacky overtime period that left many confused as to how we got to the final result. All of that aside, the Pittsburgh Steelers found a way to win despite playing on the road as seven point underdogs.
The Defense’s Legendary Performance
This game reminded me a lot of the 49ers game from 2019. Playing on the road against a talented team, five turnovers forced on defense, and a late finish that had everyone on edge. The only difference was they were able to pull out the win this time.
Teryl Austin and Matt Flores’ defensive unit had Joe Burrow seeing ghosts all afternoon long. The vaunted Steelers defense added up a whopping seven sacks, four interceptions, one fumble recovery, and most importantly, a win. The pressure was on from the get go with Cam Heyward bullying Bengal’s rookie guard Cordell Volson on Cincinnati’s first drive, and getting to Joe Burrow for the sack which ultimately set the tone for the rest of the day.
Minkah Fitzpatrick proved that he is indeed a top safety in the league. The former All Pro was everywhere Sunday wreaking havoc on Cincinnati’s offense, and was ultimately, in my opinion, the hero of the game. Aside from the flashy stats Fitzpatrick put up in the first 59:58 of regulation, his finest moment came on a blocked extra point after a Ja’Marr Chase touchdown that seemingly ended the game. Thankfully, the Bengals decided not to block Fitzpatrick on the PAT attempt, and he miraculously dove in front of Evan McPherson’s kick to send the game to overtime. Credit to the Bengal’s back up long snapper too. Pittsburgh may not have won without him.
TJ Watt was a menace on Sunday as well. The reigning Defensive Player Of The Year stuffed the stat sheet in just about every defensive category. In back-to-back plays during the second quarter, Watt rocked Joe Mixon in the backfield as he took the handoff, and then jumped up and snatched the ball out of the air creating another turnover for the Pittsburgh defense. Without Watt and Fitzpatrick’s heroics, the Steelers would most likely be 0-1 going into next weeks home opener.
Alex Highsmith Breakout Game
Third year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith’s performance is not being talked about enough and has seemingly been overshadowed by the game’s other major headlines. Make no mistake, Alex Highsmith put the league on notice last Sunday having the best game of his career so far. Three sacks on the day for Highsmith puts him halfway to his 2021 sack total, and currently has him as the NFL’s sack leader albeit through one game.
It was a joy to see Highsmith finally able to put it all together in this defense and have a dominant game. He appears to have taken a much needed step forward as a pass rusher opposite TJ Watt, and Pittsburgh will need Highsmith’s added efforts down the stretch this season due to injuries sustained in the game that I will discuss below.
Two Steelers Stars Injured
Najee Harris sustained what seemed to be a foot/ankle injury late in the game that had every Steeler fan gasping as he was rolled up during a gang tackle. During the preseason, Harris suffered from a minor Lisfranc injury on the same foot that he injured during the game Sunday.
Luckily, the injury seems to be minor and will not require the Steelers star running back to miss any time according to the man himself. Harris told Adam Schein that he is good to go and will practice this week, and even be ready for next week when the Steelers take on the Patriots. Mike Tomlin was not as optimistic about the injury however, telling media members that Harris’ status for week two will be dependent on how he feels during practice in the coming days.
TJ Watt on the other hand is a much different story. Late in the fourth quarter, Watt attempted to sack Joe Burrow and appeared to be in a fair amount of pain after the play. Walking off the field it seemed as if he mouthed the words “I tore my pec.” If that is the case, a fully torn pec would require the centerpiece of the Steelers defense to miss the remainder of the season. The fear after the game was that TJ Watt did indeed tear his pec.
Watt did however receive a second and third opinion on Monday, and the belief now is that he will not need surgery and will only miss six games minimum. Crisis averted there. A Steelers defense without TJ Watt is still amongst the top of the league, but it is undeniable that he alone has the ability to win games for the team when needed. A six week absence would have Watt making his return to practice during the bye week ahead of the Steelers’ week 10 matchup with the Saints.
Regardless of how many games TJ Watt misses this season, his injury goes to show just how important the acquisition of Malik Reed from the Denver Broncos could prove to be. Reed has plenty of game experience in his career and has produced when given the opportunity. What was initially a move to help the defense’s depth could turn into something much more than that.
Highsmith and Reed along with the rest of the Steelers’ defense can still get the job done, but the offense cannot rely on them to produce five turnovers a game. Pittsburgh will need much more out of their offensive line as well as Mitch Trubisky if they want to remain competitive in the AFC North and have the chance to make it back to the playoffs.