Mark Madden: No one knows when TJ Watt will return, but the Steelers have options in the meantime


The truth about TJ Watt’s injury is that we still don’t know.

It’s reported that Watt’s pectoral injury doesn’t require surgery, just rehab. Watt will miss six games. That’s not official. That’s not confirmed by the Steelers.

If Watt, indeed, plays again come Oct. 30 at Philadelphia, will he be 100%? Will his pec be vulnerable to further injury? What will the Steelers’ record be then?

Here’s thinking the Steelers start 4-3 or 3-4. They will definitely beat New England this coming Sunday and be 2-0. The Patriots are a mess.

Malik Reed will deputize at edge rusher in Watt’s absence. Reed says he won’t try to be Watt.

Reed should try exactly that. Give it a shot. Don’t lower the bar.

In 2001 during Mario Lemieux’s comeback season, teammate Jan Hrdina got knocked silly by a collision. Jaromir Jagr was told, “(Hrdina) doesn’t know who he is.” Replied Jagr, “Tell him he’s Mario.”


• Steelers coach Mike Tomlin optimistic TJ Watt’s injury is not season-ending
• Tim Benz: Malik Reed’s immediate promotion from ‘welcomed addition’ to ‘scrutinized replacement’ for TJ Watt

Assuming Reed can’t be Watt, it might help if Devin Bush could be Devin Bush. The player the Steelers traded up to get with the 10th pick overall in 2019.

Bush looked a bit like that guy on Sunday, not the Xerox of a Xerox he’d mostly been since tearing his ACL in 2020. Bush played aggressively, got stuck into blocks and made five tackles. Bush needs to make even more impact, but at least he made a start.

Myles Jack was solid. Coach Mike Tomlin called him a “linebacker 24/7,” which must be rough on his furniture, family and friends.

Alex Highsmith had a career-high three sacks at Cincinnati. That’s half as many as he totaled last season. Can Highsmith continue to elevate without Watt to draw the opposition’s primary attention? (Highsmith’s father Sam chastised me on Twitter when I wondered that. Aw, dad, not in front of the guys.)

The defense will still be solid without Watt. But it can’t be as good. The Steelers won’t win as much. If that were possible, Watt’s getting paid way too much.

That said, some decent components are there. Some intriguing possibilities.

There’s a good, deep rotation on the defensive line. A lot of OK defensive backs. Arthur Maulet is growing into the old Mike Hilton role. The blitzing slot corner.

Steelers Nation prayed for Watt. You saw that everywhere.

Watt is healed, praise Jesus! Well, in the process of healing, anyway.

But Watt didn’t lose a limb. He doesn’t need an organ transplant. He’s not on life support. He doesn’t have bubonic plague. He’s 27, in the prime of his life, and getting paid $24 million this season even if he doesn’t play another snap.

There’s no need to pray for Watt. A football team’s record doesn’t seem significant enough to enlist God’s help. But go ahead and sacrifice a live chicken.

Watt asked for a second opinion. The doctor said, “Your offensive line stinks.” I LOVE THIS CROWD!

There’s a lot of lying to be done between now and Watt’s return.

In Dallas, quarterback Dak Prescott needed thumb surgery. The injury normally takes 6-8 weeks recovery time, but fanboy owner Jerry Jones says Prescott will be back in four. Why? Just because, basically.

Jones is selling hope. To his locker room and fan base. There’s likely some element of that with the reported prognosis for Watt.

The NFL literati all chimed in. Ian Rapoport’s is the scenario at the beginning of this column. Adam Schefter said Watt was out for the season. Mike Florio said 3-4 weeks.

Watt’s injury did not change during the timeline of that reporting. There was guessing. There was leaking. It’s not as important to be right as it is to be first.

It felt like a head of state was on their deathbed. He’s better. He’s worse. He’ll recover. He’s deceased. It was minute-by-minute.

Pittsburgh could be under siege like Leningrad, but the lead story on all three local TV news broadcasts would be Watt’s injury.

Watt will return when he returns. That’s not first, or sexy. Just accurate.


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