Head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that he's encouraged by the news regarding injured star linebacker T.J. Watt, noting that Watt's pectoral muscle issue is not season-ending.
That said, Tomlin did declare the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year won't play in the Steelers' regular season home opener at Acrisure Stadium Sunday against the New England Patriots.
"We're probably in a lot better place than we were after the game," Tomlin said of Watt. "Usually that it the case, and that's why I don't comment even though there might be speculation out there. I can definitively say that T.J. won't play this week, but I won't make any commitments beyond that. We're encouraged, but we'll just continue to look at the situation and gain opinions and do what's appropriate. We're going to do what's appropriate like we always do, whether it's him or others from a health perspective."
Tomlin felt similarly optimistic about running back Najee Harris and center Mason Cole, both of whom, like Watt, left the team's 23-20 overtime victory last Sunday over the Bengals in Cincinnati with injuries.
But it's Watt's injury that had the football world abuzz with speculation regarding just how long the star linebacker might be out.
In this case, it appears the issue won't be a long-term one, though he could still go on injured reserve later this week after getting more opinions regarding the issue.
"We've got time to make decisions such as that," Tomlin said. "IR decisions have to be made by the end of the week relative to this game being a counter, so we've got time. We're not in a hurry to gather information too quickly. We'll see how his body responds. We'll get second and third opinions, and at the end of the week or at some point, we'll do what's appropriate."
If Watt does go on the Reserve/Injured List, he would be required to miss at least four weeks under the new rules regarding injured players implemented this season by the NFL. Teams are permitted to bring up to eight players back off injured reserve, though the same player cannot be brought back on more than two occasions.
If Watt isn't placed on the Reserve/Injured List, he would be eligible to play at any point, though the Steelers would be required to continue to carry him on their 53-man roster. That could get difficult given the team currently has just three outside linebackers — Alex Highsmith, Malik Reed and Jamir Jones — on the active roster.
Highsmith, who had nine tackles and three sacks against the Bengals, will man the right outside linebacker spot, while Reed, acquired via a trade just two weeks ago from the Broncos, is expected to start opposite him in place of Watt. The Steelers also claimed Jones off waivers from the Jaguars. This is his second time with the Steelers. He initially made the 53-man roster coming out of training camp last season, but was waived after a few weeks and claimed by the Rams.
Neither will be expected to simply reproduce the play of Watt, who tied an NFL record last season with 22.5 sacks.
"It's going to be a cast of characters to fill his role, Malik and Jamir being the lead candidates," Tomlin said. "When you lose a guy like him, it's not about the guys that occupy his position of left outside linebacker. It's about how we redistribute the responsibilities collectively to produce the outcome we desire. Those guys are not going to be T.J. It's not realistic to think that they're going to be T.J. But we expect them to be varsity. And we're going to formulate a plan to redistribute responsibilities to lean on our strengths, to minimize our weaknesses like we always do each and every week. We're excited about doing that with them and getting this group ready to play this week."
Reed started 26 games in place of both Von Miller and Bradley Chubb the previous two seasons in Denver, so he's more than capable of handling a starting role.
"Malik is a 700-plus defender the past couple of years," Tomlin said. "His resume speaks for itself. That's why we went out and acquired him. He's a very credible NFL player, and we expect him to play varsity ball for us."
As for the situation with Harris, Tomlin will take a wait-and-see approach in terms of practice participation.
Harris had dealt with a Lisfranc injury early in training camp that caused him to be sidelined for several weeks, but Tomlin said this was not an aggravation of that issue.
"Naj is really optimistic," Tomlin said. "It's good be young. He appears to be in position, but he's going to have to practice and prove his readiness. That's just my perspective. He's a talented guy, but he's a young guy, so I'm going to want to see some work from him. We'll take him day by day and see where that leads us in terms of his participation and the quality of that participation. As always, we'll simply do what's right for him and for us."
If Harris is unable to practice or doesn't practice up to the standard Tomlin wants to see, rookie Jaylen Warren and veteran Benny Snell would be tasked with replacing him.
Encouraging signs: While many were singing the praises of the Steelers defense following the team's win against the Bengals, Tomlin pointed out the offense showed a lot of encouraging signs in the win.
While the numbers might not have been there, with only 75 yards on the ground and Mitch Trubisky only throwing for 194 yards, the steps toward improvement were there.
"Looking back at it from a coach's lens, taking the emotion out, I was encouraged by some of the things I saw from our offensive unit," said Tomlin. "It's no secret that we're transitioning and gaining cohesion in that group, whether it's young players or players that are new to us. I thought we did some good things, considering the variables. I thought we were better than we were in Jacksonville. And this was our second opportunity with this collective to go into a road venue.
"Obviously, a regular season environment is more intense than a preseason one. So, for us to be better and substantially better, it was encouraging. There was less negativity in terms of negative plays. We were less penalized. We did good things. We took care of the football. We positioned ourselves to make the necessary plays in the weighty moments. The significant guys delivered in those moments. Diontae (Johnson), in possession down football, that catch he made on our sideline, what do you say about that. Trubisky, with a free down, escaping the rush and moving to his left and putting that ball in the middle of the field to Muth (Pat Freiermuth) in overtime to position us for Boz (Chris Boswell) to do what he does."
Tomlin is aware there is still work to be done, but it has to start at some point, and it did on Sunday.
"Sure, we're far from perfect in all three phases," said Tomlin. "There's work to do, and we're excited about addressing that as we move forward. We began that process yesterday in the film session evaluating our tape and it continues today as we formulate our plan based on those experiences."
It's about the pedigree: One play Tomlin referred to above was the 'free play' in overtime, a third-and-one situation from the Steelers 29-yard line with only 34 ticks on the clock. Trubisky kept his composure following a defensive offside, hitting Freiermuth for a 26-yard completion and a first down at the Bengals 45-yard line, putting them in much better shape for Boswell's game-winning field goal than the penalty alone would have.
The play was just one of a few that Trubisky made to keep the Steelers in the game, and that is part of the reason the Steelers signed him as an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
"I think it's beyond experience," said Tomlin. "I think it's pedigree. He's an athletic guy, and that's one of the things that was attractive to us in him back in the spring."
Trubisky also has had a knack for protecting the ball early on, including in the preseason and Week 1. Tomlin acknowledged that is a combination of things, including experience and decision making.
"It's probably all of the above and then some," said Tomlin. "Let's be honest here, I'm getting to know Mitch. I think any time he and I step into a stadium, I come out of the stadium with a deeper understanding of what he is, who he is as a man, as a player. It's a process. I don't resist that process, but I don't take it for granted at the same time. We're learning and growing, so it's reasonable to expect him to be better, for me to be better with him, for us to be better with each and every passing day and particularly those days inside stadiums."
Tune in: For fans who don't want to miss any of the action, NFL+ is here, which means you can now watch the Steelers live and on the go! Watch live local and primetime regular season games on your phone or tablet. Start your free trial today here.