The National Football League and the sport of Pro Football undeniably can be a pretty tough game to play, and unfortunately despite all of the precautionary measures taken by the League to further promote player safety throughout the past several seasons, major injuries can and often do still happen.
But when the New Orleans Saints host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a critically-important inter-conference (AFC vs. NFC) match-up this upcoming Sunday afternoon inside of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Black and Gold will attempt to slow down one of the players who this season has developed a reputation for "taking out" opposing players with his tenacious (but legal) hard-hitting style: Steelers EDGE pass rusher TJ Watt.
In case you missed it, the 24-year old Watt — the younger brother of Houston Texans All Pro defensive end and former League MVP JJ Watt — was recently involved in one of the more publicized defensive plays in the NFL this season; when he delivered a hit on Carolina QB Cam Newton that ultimately forced the Panthers to "shut down" their superstar starting QB for the rest of the year.
As originally noted by USA TODAY Sports / The Big Lead NFL writer Jason McIntyre, the play happened 8 weeks ago on Thursday Night Football at Pittsburgh back in Week #9; when Watt hit Newton right on his throwing shoulder with his helmet — a clean but brutally hard (and totally legal) play — and Newton and the Panthers have never been the same ever since.
— Steel Legends (@Steel_Legends) November 11, 2018
The Panthers were (6-2) going into that game against Watt and the Steelers; but his hit on Newton that rendered the 8th year veteran hurt and ineffective (as evidenced by Newton's sub-par performance against the Saints this past Monday Night) led to Carolina's current 6-game losing streak and their decision the other day to "shut down" Newton for their remaining two regular season games.
McIntyre says that the Panthers haven’t won since that hit, and their offense has flat-lined as a result. That's because the hit did some obvious damage to Newton's throwing shoulder, and Newton appeared to play timidly (because he didn’t want to run after taking that hit and risking even further damage to his shoulder.
McIntyre adds that teams challenged the Panthers to beat them threw the air in Carolina's games after that hit by Watt, and Newton couldn’t.
Before the hit (9 games):
17 TD, 5 INT
75 carries, 352 yards
4 rushing TD
After the hit (5 games):
7 TD, 8 INT passing
26 carries, 136 yards
0 rushing TD
Off-season shoulder surgery is likely for Newton, while Watt and the Steelers will now turn their attention towards this week's opponent: the (12-2) Saints and 18th year NFL veteran and soon-to-be 40-year old QB Drew Brees.
On the season through 14 total games played, Watt has tallied (58) tackles, (11.0) sacks and (11) TFL's (tackles for a loss of yardage) in 2018. He also has 20 quarterback "hits", 4 forced fumbles, 2 passes defensed and 1 blocked field goal to his credit.
And that's not even counting his performance last week in Pittsburgh's victory against 41-year old New England Patriots starting QB and former League MVP Tom Brady; when Watt had the only sack of Brady along with 3 QB "hurries" and forced a crucial holding penalty.
Watt played a big part in the Steelers’ ability to bother Brady and forced him into an uncharacteristic performance. Brady was 25 for 36 with one touchdown pass and one interception. He finished with a passer rating of 89.9.
So it pretty much goes without saying that Watt and company will come after Brees early and often in this upcoming Sunday's match-up at the Superdome, especially with the Saints O-Line appearing to be in a "state of flux" after last week's tough win at Carolina.
The Saints offense struggled again for a 3rd straight week at Carolina; but as pointed out by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill: some of the issues the Saints had on offense against the Panthers can be chalked up to their offensive line being depleted by injuries.
The Saints offensive line is generally regarded as the strength of the team, but after a series of injuries against the Panthers, the team was forced to rely heavily on backup players during Monday’s win.
Underhill observes that back-up left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who was filling in for normal starter Terron Armstead (pectoral), played 59 of 74 snaps before suffering an injury; while starting center Max Unger was limited to 38 snaps before being knocked out of action with a concussion.
The injuries put Cameron Tom at center (36 snaps) and Will Clapp (19) at left quard, and both players EXCELLED in larger and increased roles.
It's uncertain at this point in time as to just who the Saints will trot out as their 5 designated starting O-Linemen for this Sunday; and chances are we won't even really know when the final injury report for both teams is released tomorrow, since a few of them could be listed as "questionable" or a "game-time decision".
In any event, Watt normally lines up on the left side / outer edge of the Steelers defense, which likely means that he will face Saints 2nd year veteran and starting offensive right tackle Ryan Ramczyk — who is Watt's friend and former teammate during their time together at the University of Wisconsin.
However, the Steelers like to move around Watt as a defensive "chess piece" depending on the situation; so it will come as no surprise if they line Watt up on the outer right-side edge, to face either Bushrod or Armstead, who would be playing in his first game since Week #10 IF he was to return to the line-up this week.
Armstead has missed the past five games with a torn pectoral muscle, an injury he suffered back during that Week 10 blow-out victory for New Orleans at Cincinnati.
Regardless: Watt is a disruptive force no matter where he is out on the football field, and the Saints will have to be fully aware of his whereabouts at all times.
And given the fact that he's already "taken out" one notable NFC South QB this season with his tenacious hard-hitting playing style, it will be up to the Saints O-line that's still trying to heal up from last week, to prevent Watt from making Brees his next victim....