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MMQB: T.J. Watt Explains How the Steelers Did Just Enough to Beat the Ravens

Pittsburgh remains alive in the playoff race, because its defensive leader kept himself ready virtually and stepped up when he was needed against a heated rival. Plus, Russell Wilson on stopping a skid, Dan Quinn as interim coach, Jared Goff on a Lions win(!) and much more from Week 13.

Everyone in Pittsburgh knows the intensity of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. But few have real insight into how a player might get himself ready to go into the game itself. And so a few neighbors of Pittsburgh’s Defensive Player of the Year candidate, T.J. Watt, can consider themselves the lucky ones coming out of last week.

For the balance of that time, Watt had no idea whether he’d actually be able to strap it up at Heinz Field on Sunday. He’d tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, and the way it’s played out this year, most players who do test positive wind up missing at least one game, with many going through the full 10 days of testing before being cleared. But Watt held out hope that he’d be different and went through the week preparing as if he was in the facility.

“It wasn’t that bad, just because, so we’re used to doing Zoom from last season,” Watt told me over the phone, early Sunday night. “So I was able to participate in all the meetings, and watch as much film as I possibly could from home and then just did a stationary bike. And my neighbors probably thought I was a little weird running around in the backyard with my cleats on for a little bit, but I was just trying to do anything to stay in shape so I wasn’t completely gassed once I came out here today.”

Whatever he did, it wound up working for the Steelers.

Watt returned a negative test on Friday, then another on Saturday, which cleared him from the protocol to join his teammates again Sunday—and bury Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. And while his overall numbers reflect that, and we’ll get to those, it’s what he did in the game’s most critical moment that he’ll remember most.

So about Watt’s having his wind after missing a week of practice? He ended up getting the ultimate test of that early Sunday night. Baltimore had just driven 60 yards in eight plays, with Lamar Jackson’s hitting on six of seven attempts to move the Ravens down the field and draw the visitors within a point. After some discussion, John Harbaugh made the call to go for two, down 20–19. There were 12 seconds on the clock. This was the ballgame.

Good thing Watt didn’t care what the neighbors thought earlier in the week.

At the snap, showing burst like it was his first play of the game, and not his last, Watt made his way to Jackson with it all on the line—and did so with a game plan.

“Just came off the edge, unblocked, so I knew I couldn’t rush full speed ’cause a guy like that can pump-fake you,” Watt said. “So I was just trying to keep my feet on the ground as best as I could. I started to see his arm pull back like he was going to throw it. And so I tried to get my hands up to affect the angle as best as I possibly could.”

Mission accomplished. Watt came screaming off the edge to Jackson’s right, broke down as he closed in, then stayed outside of Jackson. Jackson then sidestepped back inside, and Watt threw his arms up to his right, which redirected Jackson’s throw. Mark Andrews was wide open in the flat behind Watt. It didn’t matter. Watt had done just enough to force the throw wide to the right of the Ravens’ Pro Bowl tight end.

And that didn’t just preserve the Steelers’ 20–19 win. It may have preserved their season.