The goal is obviously to win any game that you partake in. In week one, sometimes you're mainly hoping to get out relatively healthy besides the bumps and bruises. Along the way, maybe you begin to find out something about your team that the exhibition games showed you. Sometimes you'll even find out that a player you had previously labeled as a depth player or special teamer makes a bigger impact than you'd anticipated.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 1 win accomplished a lot of that. Outside of wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool exiting the game with brief injuries, the Steelers escaped relatively healthy. Linebacker Robert Spillane injured his shin before the game and was a late inactive.
Because of their inside linebacker depth, the Steelers losing Spillane turned out to be a relatively moot point.
The outside linebacker combination, however, will be a big-time storyline going forward.
When training camp opened, T.J. Watt was seeking an extension with the Steelers. He was entering the final season of his rookie deal and wanted the opportunity to cash in following two Defensive Player of the Year runner-up campaigns.
Watt showed up to practice every day and participated but sat out most of the team drills opting to do some drills on his own off to the side. After meeting with head coach Mike Tomlin, Watt received Tomlin's approval to practice on his own. Still under contract, Watt was really only hurting himself if he went into a legitimate holdout.
After watching Bud Dupree for the majority of last season, Alex Highsmith earned a chance to start opposite of Watt when Dupree departed via free agency.
Highsmith's rookie season went as well as you could hope for. He spelled both Watt and Dupree at times and did so in a professional and veteran-like manner, always making plays and being in the right spots.
The Steelers felt like they were in good hands with these two despite losing Dupree for nothing. Then, another opportunity presented itself.
On July 20th, Melvin Ingram put pen to paper on a one-year deal with the Steelers. The former pro bowl pass rusher spent most of the 2020 campaign on the shelf with a knee injury. He spent his entire nine-year career prior to this season with the Chargers. A lot of people assumed that Highsmith was again going to be relegated to spelling Watt and Ingram much like he did last season.
However, it looks as though it'll be quite the opposite.
The current depth chart lists Watt as the starter at left outside linebacker and Highsmith as the guy on the right side. Ingram is listed as the backup on both sides according to the depth chart. This is absolutely the right move, and it seemed to prove as much Sunday afternoon.
The three edge rushers all played less than 50% of their combined snaps on Sunday. Watt 69 snaps, Ingram 54 and Highsmith 46.
The talk all week was that Watt would be on a snap count due to his lack of physical team practice preparation throughout training camp. His endurance didn't seem to be an issue Sunday as he recorded two sacks of quarterback Josh Allen including a strip-sack that was recovered by Cam Heyward.
Highsmith recorded a singular tackle, and Ingram didn't record any box score-worthy numbers but had been consistently winning his pass rushing battles.
The three of these guys may combine to form the most lethal group of outside pass-rushing threats among teams all around the league. They all succeeded in getting to the quarterback on a consistent basis, and Watt himself might be the most elite pass rusher in the league today.
The Steelers did a great job containing Allen Sunday and much of that had to do with the pass rush generated by these guys' push. Everything is a trickle-down effect. If the pass rush is elite, they can force the quarterbacks into more mistakes in turn making the defensive unit as a whole elite.
Allen is good at using his feet to make plays. He is a big-bodied quarterback that can move quickly and make defenders miss. The Steelers kept him rather contained and that's why Allen couldn't get much more going on offense than he did.
Quickly glossing over the Steelers' schedule, Allen may be the most mobile quarterback they'll face all season outside of their multiple meetings with Lamar Jackson and Baltimore. In previous years, the Steelers have done a phenomenal job containing him as well which has led to wins over the Ravens.
With Ingram essentially replacing Dupree, the Steelers are in great hands with their outside linebackers. Watt and Highsmith can afford to take a play or two off every drive and the defense wouldn't miss a beat. Reducing the workload on the oft-injured Ingram could keep him fresher and healthier for the long run as well.
The Steelers were very fortunate to have landed Ingram on an affordable on-year deal to keep their pass rush among the most feared in the NFL. It certainly paid dividends in Week 1. One has to think that the trend will continue as the season wears on.
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