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Tim Benz: Amid confusing reports on T.J. Watt injury, 1 thing should be clear to Steelers fans

It seems like every time Pittsburgh Steelers fans log on to Twitter there’s a new, nebulous report about the status of T.J. Watt’s pectoral injury.

On Monday afternoon, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport said Watt isn’t expecting firm word on his status until Tuesday and that his prognosis could be anywhere between a brief multi-week rehab and a surgery that could “knock him out until at least the end of the season.”

By Monday night, Rapoport updated that outlook to about six weeks on the shelf, without surgery.

CBS’ Jonathan Jones is hearing “optimism” that Watt could be back in a month.

Adam Schefter of ESPN has Watt’s absence between six weeks and the rest of the season depending on if surgery is deemed necessary.

Let’s just sum up all of those possibilities for the Steelers: It’s somewhere between really bad and a death knell for the season.

As confusing as the medical reports have been, the only thing more confounding to me is how hard some people are working to tamp down what Watt’s absence is going to mean for the Steelers.

The entire offseason, Pittsburgh fans and media members were telling anyone who would listen that Watt had to be the Defensive Player of the Year over the likes of Aaron Donald and Micah Parsons, because no defensive player impacts his team more than Watt does. After all, the team’s record when Watt was inactive or left a game early was 0-4-1. They were 9-3 in games where he played the full contest.

In fact, I’d go further and say in those losses where Watt played in full — road games in Cincinnati, Green Bay and Kansas City — he gutted it out and played compromised with injuries lingering from the previous week.

So, those arguments were true. Watt was every bit that vital to the Steelers’ success or failure.

“T.J. does some abnormal stuff that not a lot of other people can,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said Monday.

Yet now I’m being told (like on a recent edition of WPXI’s Final Word) that Pittsburgh fans shouldn’t be all that concerned because the Steelers traded for Denver Broncos outside linebacker Malik Reed and, you know, “next man up” n’at!

“I’m ready for sure,” Reed said of the challenge of replacing Watt. “I’m definitely ready for it and ready to embrace it.”

I like Reed. He was a good pickup. A valuable depth player. Maybe even a capable starter. But it’s a long way from “capable starter” to Defensive Player of the Year.

Many fans built the argument that the Steelers would have been better than their 9-7-1 record last year if Watt could’ve avoided missing as much playing time as he did. But now he’s going to miss even more games than that — to say nothing of Najee Harris’ injury.

And I’m still supposed to believe more than nine wins for the Steelers? How is that going to work, exactly?

The other starting outside linebacker, Alex Highsmith, had a great game Sunday in Cincinnati with three sacks. Is he going to be able to replicate Watt’s production, though, if he’s the one that has to be the focal point of blocking schemes for opposing offensive coordinators?

In other words, be Batman instead of Robin.

“I just try to go in and do my job; do the best that I can,” Highsmith said Monday. “I know he’ll be working his butt off to get back as quickly as he can.”

One thing that is frustrating about the timing of Watt’s injury (and Harris’ too), is that, over the next three weeks, the Steelers have what appear to be three very winnable games against the Patriots, Browns and Jets.

At least winnable based on the dominance of the defense that I saw Sunday in Cincinnati. If that defense can harass a Super Bowl-worthy offense like the Bengals’ — one that put 65 points on the board in two games against the Steelers last year — coordinator Teryl Austin should be able to construct a game plan good enough to swallow up those three offenses.

The Patriots only scored seven points in their opener. The Jets had just nine. The Browns did post 26 against a bad Carolina Panthers team, but they were one-dimensional, getting 217 of their 355 total yards on the ground.

With Watt injured, however, the matchups will become a lot more even. Let alone how things will look for the Steelers when they have to travel to Buffalo in Week 5 and host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 6, assuming Watt is still out of the lineup by then.

The Steelers just stole a win in Cincinnati; one that most fans didn’t anticipate while trying to find nine or 10 victories on the schedule en route to avoiding the franchise’s first losing season since 2003. If they give one or two losses back that they shouldn’t because Watt is out, that exhilarating overtime upset of the Bengals on Sunday won’t loom as large.

It’s not just in terms of the wins and losses that we are actively fooling ourselves when it comes to Watt. I remember when TribLIVE’s Mark Madden questioned some aspects of giving Watt a $112 million contract extension, in part, because of his brother J.J. Watt’s long history of significant injuries. A lot of people told him that was an unfair comparison to make, just because they are brothers.

Yet suddenly everyone seems to be clinging to hope that T.J. can replicate J.J.’s eight-week return from a torn pec in 2019.

I guess in that regard making a brother-brother comparison is totally valid, though, right?

Look, I don’t blame Pittsburghers for living in hope. Watt is such an exciting player, I want to see him back as soon as possible too. And I’m not telling anyone to give up on the season just a week into it.

What I am saying is that — regardless of how long or short of a time he is out — there is a reality to Watt’s injury that Steelers fans are going to have to come to accept. Whether they choose to do so now or if they need to see it with their own eyes is up to them, but Watt’s absence will negatively impact the team’s record.

Denying what we all witnessed when he was frequently sidelined a season ago won’t help.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.


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