Pittsburgh outside linebacker T.J. Watt returned to practice this week, and while signs are pointing to a potential return to the lineup this Sunday against Philadelphia, there has been no official update on his status.
Watt spoke with members of the media Friday, and didn’t necessarily rule out suiting up this weekend, if he’s given the clearance by the Steelers’ medical staff.
“I don’t know. We’ll have to see,” Watt responded, when asked point-blank if he thinks he could put the helmet and shoulder pads back on Sunday against the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.
Watt said he feels “very encouraged” with his progress, and that the pectoral injury that’s kept him out since Week 1 is “definitely trending” toward 100-percent, adding that he’s been feeling fine in practice, but that it’s not his decision to make when he plays his next snap.
“In totality, I’m just working on getting my body back to playing,” the reigning Defensive Player of the Year said. “There’s a lot of aspects that go into an NFL football game, and I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”
Watt has accumulated 73.0 career sacks in just 78 games, already good for third in franchise history — behind James Harrison (80.5) and Jason Gildon (77) — in just his sixth season as a pro.
A year ago, Watt tied Michael Strahan for the NFL’s all-time single-season sack record with 22.5. This year, the Steelers have struggled to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks in several of the games he’s missed.
Through seven games, Pittsburgh is tied for 22nd in team sacks with 12.0, with fellow linebacker Alex Highsmith responsible for more than half of those (6.5).
At this point, the 28-year-old Watt is just hungry to get back out there and make plays for his team again, but don’t expect him or anyone in the organization to rush things along.
“When it’s been more than a few weeks, you have all aspects of it,” explained Watt. “You have the physical aspect of it and then obviously the mental, too. It always sucks when you can’t physically put your hand in the pile and make a difference on gameday, just trying to find any way I can get involved as possible without stepping on too many toes, but I’m just excited to get back.”
Watt’s injury occurred in the final minute of the Steelers’ 23-20 overtime win against Cincinnati on Sept. 11. He was attempting to bat down a Joe Burrow pass attempt when he suddenly had to exit the field. Soon after he was placed on the injured list, Watt underwent knee surgery to take care of a lingering preseason injury as well.
It was originally believed that the surgery would delay Watt’s return to the lineup by an extra week or two, but that theory has since been debunked.
“Fluky things happen, and anything can happen on any given play,” said Watt. “If anything, it gives me more of a reason to not take this game for granted. It sucks not being able to practice and not being able to play, but when you come back, it makes you cherish it that much more and makes you want it that much more.”
Watt’s teammates are glad he’s at least back on the practice field for now, and that even if he’s unavailable against the Eagles, things seem to be heading in the right direction going into next week’s bye.
“It’s always good to see T.J. out there,” said Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris. “He’s a great player. He’s a great teammate at that, so we’re all happy to see him out there.”
If Watt isn’t able to play Sunday, his next chance would be at home against New Orleans on Nov. 13. If he’s still not cleared to rejoin the roster within his 21-day window allowed by the league, he would then have to remain inactive for the rest of the season.
Pittsburgh actually just saw that exact scenario play out with rookie receiver Calvin Austin III coming off of the injured list. Austin wasn’t given the go-ahead within his allotted three weeks, so by rule, he will have to wait until 2023 to see his first NFL action.
Not having Watt until next season would be a killer blow to a 2-5 Pittsburgh team that could already be looking at its first losing season since 2003.