Coming back strong

The 2022 season was a far cry from what linebacker T.J. Watt had hoped for.

Coming off a season where he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, he had high hopes for the 2022 campaign. 

But those hopes were somewhat dashed early when he suffered a pectoral injury in the Steelers season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Watt immediately thought he was done for the season, his heart sinking over the thought of the year being finished for him almost before it started.

"It was difficult, especially in the moment," said Watt. "You think you're done for the whole season. It's hard to really compartmentalize what's happening and why it's happening in the moment."

The worst part was 'the moment' seemed to last an eternity for Watt as he waited on the fate of his season. Sure, it was only a day or two until he learned his situation, but it seemed like a lifetime.

While he was waiting, he got some advice from his own family, talking to his brothers, Derek Watt and J.J. Watt, who both went through torn pectoral injuries in their careers.

"It was a lot of calls with Derek," said Watt. "I was talking with him a lot. He's gone through that exact injury before and I was like, what did it feel like? Did it feel like this? Could you do this, could you do that? And same with J.J. because he had the same injury as well.

"From what they were telling me it almost felt like it was the same injury to be honest and I was thinking the worst. It didn't give me any comfort in talking to them and seeing how their injury felt because it felt like I could do the same stuff they could and couldn't do the same stuff when they required surgery. It didn't really provide me any comfort."

Comfort would eventually come when he got the news from Dr. James Bradley, the team's orthopedic surgeon, that he didn't require surgery and could return to the field in 2022.

"There was a time frame I thought it was completely torn and I was going to be out the year and need surgery," said Watt. "And then meeting with Dr. Bradley after seeing the scans, I started to see some positive news, and then another secondary doctor saw the MRIs and he agreed. So, within a day or two I pretty much knew I was able to come back and didn't need surgery.

"It was terrible waiting, even though it wasn't that long. But the news was good. Once I figured out that I was able to have a chance to come back, I was kind of on the road to recovery right away, and asking what can I do to get better?

"My first reaction was, 'Let's go, let's get to work.' How quickly can I come back? When can I start the rehab process? I was just trying to keep my legs active as much as possible, keep the right side of my body going so that when I could start to train my left side and my pec, that there wasn't much lag time.

"It's tough because you want to push and that's always how I am. But in situations like that, you have to listen. There are so many guys in here that have our best interests at heart, and they always tell you, just make sure that you're doing it right. And credit to (head athletic trainer) John Norwig and (senior conditioning coordinator) Garrett Giemont for doing a great job of overseeing all that and making sure that they protect us from ourselves."

Take a look at photographs of Steelers LB T.J. Watt from the 2022 season

While Watt got satisfaction jumping right back into the rehab process, what killed him was being a spectator on game day, especially when the Steelers opened the season 2-6 and his absence was felt.

"It was difficult just watching. Very difficult," said Watt. "I tried to learn as much as I could and see where we needed help and juice and spark and learn how to provide it. To be able to have the headset on for a couple of weeks to kind of get a coach's perspective also helped.

"I wish I didn't have to go through it, but it provided me great perspective. It reminded me of how much I love the game, how much impact you can have when you come in the game, not even as far as playmaking, but just as far as bringing juice and bringing excitement. I've always said it. This is such a rare window. We're living our absolute dreams. You have to play like it. When you play like it, stuff like that is contagious. And it's been like that not only on game days but also on the practice field. I just really cherished that this past season because it was taken away from me early on and I was able to enjoy it when I came back."

That comeback for Watt was special. He missed a total of seven games, returning after the Steelers bye week, a stretch where the Steelers went 7-2.

His first game back was against the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium and for him, it just hit different.

"It's chilling," said Watt. "It really is because it's like you're back home, especially at Acrisure Stadium. The fans are just so incredible in Pittsburgh, and that made that so special. It was bone chilling. It's hard to describe. When you put so much work into it and you make one play, you kind of black out for a moment and you just get so excited because it's so hard. It's so difficult to be in this game. It's so difficult to stay in this game, let alone to make plays. So much work goes into it that it was overwhelming to be back."

Overwhelming yes, but there was that initial question of how his body would react, how the pectoral muscle would react on that first snap. It was something he had to put out of his mind as much as possible, even though he was wearing a brace that was a constant reminder.

"I think subconsciously there's always hesitation, especially when you're coming back from an injury, and you have a brace on. That kind of lets you know that something is wrong on your body," said Watt. "I don't ever go in thinking about it because you can't play like that. You have to be able to play free. They always say if you're playing to not get hurt, you're going to get hurt or you're going to get someone else hurt. You have to play as fast as you possibly can. At least in my mind I thought I was. But looking back on film in those early weeks, I definitely wasn't myself."

Watt finished the season with 39 tackles, 27 of them solo stops, five and a half sacks, eight tackles for a loss, five passes defensed, two interceptions and a forced fumble. He was voted to the 2022 Pro Bowl Games, although he didn't take part as he is still working his way back to full health.

Watt admitted that he didn't fully feel like himself until the last couple of weeks of the season, something that frustrated him.

"It was probably the last two weeks of the season that I started to really feel like myself," said Watt. "I don't know if I ever fully got back, but I was definitely climbing and starting to feel a lot better and I wasn't coming out of games super sore. I was finally in football shape and getting back to taking chances and playing free and not being so worried about making mistakes. That's the frustrating thing for me. I felt like I was starting to gain my stride and get back to who I am."

Despite the season not ending the way Watt had hoped it would with a postseason run, he does feel the Steelers were on the right path and the way the year ended can serve as a building block for the future.

"This defense played really good football and hopefully we can build on that," said Watt. "And you saw what the offense was doing as well. I feel like we have a lot to build on here as a as an organization."