Skip to main content

Tomlin: Watt 'best defensive player on the planet'

The Steelers haven't allowed an opponent to top 20 points in any of their past seven games, giving up an average of 15 points per game during a streak in which they've gone 5-2.

And they've done so despite having dealt with some major injuries during that time span, with defensive tackle Cam Heyward and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, among others, missing significant playing time.

They got Heyward back three weeks ago after he missed six games with a groin injury. And there's a good chance Fitzpatrick will return when the Steelers (7-4) host the Cardinals (2-10) Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex that Fitzpatrick, who has missed the past four games, and nose tackle Montravius Adams, who has missed the past three with an ankle injury, both could return against the Cardinals.

(We've) got the light on for Minkah and Mon Adams this week," said Tomlin. "Both guys will be participants on some level (Wednesday). They will let the amount of participation and the quality of participation be our guide as we lean in toward the latter part of the week, but we're cautiously optimistic about both."

That would be a nice boost for a defense that has already been performing more than admirably.

Typically, playing without stars such as Heyward and Fitzpatrick, both of whom have been named to the All-Pro team in the past, would be troublesome for a team.

But the Steelers have had outside linebacker T.J. Watt available for all 11 of their games this season. And Watt has been the stabilizing force that has held everything together regardless of the moving pieces around him.

"Not only for the defense but for our football team," Tomlin said. "There is a lot to learn from him in terms of how he goes about his business, how he works to maximize his talent level. What he does to maintain a level of production.

"Let's be honest. T.J. is the best defensive player on the planet right now. And he proves that week in and week out with the plays that he delivers us."

His production backs that up.

Through 11 games, he's tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 13.5 with Minnesota's Danielle Hunter, whose team is on a bye this week. He also has 25 quarterback hits, which ranks second in the NFL, six pass defenses, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, an interception and 12 tackles for a loss.

And Watt, the 2022 NFL Defensive Player of the Year when he tied the NFL single-season record with 22.5 sacks, accomplishes that despite drawing considerable attention from opposing offenses each week.

"I get a bird's eye view of it. I see the lengths that people go through to minimize his impact on the game," Tomlin said. "I know the type of games that we've been in close ball games and you know how, at times it minimizes a guy that plays his position's ability to impact the game. None of those things slow down that train that we all know what's coming. And so we're just appreciative of it."

What makes Watt even more valuable to Tomlin is how he goes about his business. He works hard and has a no-nonsense approach to the game.

As the Steelers head into their final stretch in this regular season with the defense coming back together, it's Watt's approach to things and the big plays he creates the Steelers can continue to lean on.

In 29 career December games, Watt has 21.5 career sacks and 48 quarterback hits to go along with nine forced fumbles, the most he's recorded in any single month.

"Hopefully it's something that the young guys can learn from," Tomlin said of Watt's approach to the game. "And it's our job to continue to work to put him in a position where his talents and his will, as well as preparedness, shows."

Lines of communication open: "When I talked to the guys the other day, one of the first things I said was good teamwork is communication."

Those were words interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner shared with the offense last week after the dismissal of offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and it played out on Sunday against the Bengals.

Communication was a key component of the relationship between Faulkner, quarterback Kenny Pickett and quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, who is calling the plays.

Tomlin knows there is room for growth in that area, but things were off to a strong start.

"I thought it was good," said Tomlin. "I think it's reasonable to expect it to continue to improve and to be better. Just another week under our belt. Another normal week, if there's such a thing. Last week we had Thanksgiving and some of that stuff, and so I'm excited about it. I like where it is. We're going to continue to work to get better not only in terms of how we communicate, but things that we do logistically leading up to performance. How we construct our day, how we present material, how we ready our group physically for the work. And particularly this time of year you work to reduce some of your on-field snaps in an effort to preserve the group.

"But you've got to be thoughtful about what you choose to physically rep and what you choose not to. We've got some growth opportunities ahead of us on many fronts."

Tomlin praised Faulkner's ability to manage his room when he first elevated him to the position, and a week in said there is still more to be done.

"I'm not ready to paint with a broad brush at this juncture," said Tomlin. "I thought we did what we needed to do last week, and I think the more we proceed, the more the answers to those type questions will become more evident."

Stats don't tell the story: Linebacker James Harrison and receiver Hines Ward were both named semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024, Harrison for the second time and Ward for the eighth straight year. 

During his press conference, Tomlin was asked what stood out to him about Ward during his time coaching him, and he compared him to former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Hall of Famer John Lynch, who Tomlin coached and maintains a close relationship with. 

"Hines is like John Lynch to me," said Tomlin. "I coached both guys. Stats don't tell their story."

Ward played 14 seasons for the Steelers, after being selected in the third round of the 1998 NFL Draft. He had 1,000 career receptions for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns. His versatility was always on display with his blocking ability a shining example of that. 

"Ask the men that played football against them of that generation, their impact on the game and how the game is played," said Tomlin. "And in some instances, how the game is officiated. 

"Hines was a football player first and a receiver second. And I say that to describe him all the time because of just the ridiculous consistency of his toughness in the passing game, in the running game, running the football after the catch, blocking. He is well deserving of consideration, and I hope it happens for him this time.

"I'm going to phrase it succinctly in terms of my experience and exposure, I feel similarly to how I felt about John Lynch.  Stats are just a component of the story in terms of the type of player that he was."