PITTSBURGH -- From assistant coaching changes to an All-Pro receiver being out of pocket, the Pittsburgh Steelers face a barrage of challenges to resolve over the next few months.
One answer to the Steelers' disorder can be found on one side of the pass rush. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt strengthened his position as a defensive building block in Year 2 with 13 sacks, tied for eighth in the league.
After struggling to close out games late in the season, the Steelers' defense could look different in 2019. More personnel is on the way, possibly at linebacker and in the secondary. Scheme tweaks may be on the table, too.
But the defense was strong in a few areas. The playmaking of Watt, Cam Heyward, Joe Haden and others helped the Steelers rank sixth in the NFL in total defense (327.2 yards allowed per game) and tie for first in sacks (52).
Watt doesn't seem to care about his numbers or his place in the leadership hierarchy.
"I just want to see us win. I don’t care who’s here, who’s at the helm of everything," Watt said. "I just want to win games. We had a great team last year and I got to see what being on a 13-3 team is all about. Now, I've gotten to see what a (9-6-1) team is all about. I just want to be a part of success. If I’m the leader, if anyone else is the leader, I don’t care. I just want to be a part of it.”
Watt's progress in his second season should be encouraging for a franchise that's had uneven draft success on defense in recent years. Corner Artie Burns, the team's top pick in 2016, fell out of the starting lineup in September. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree, the Steelers' first-rounder from 2015, has shown flashes but hasn't eclipsed six sacks in any of his first four seasons. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, the top pick from 2013, is no longer in the league.
Watt ended his second season on the rise. After experiencing a midseason sack lull, Watt refined his pass-rush moves in an effort to generate more consistent pressure. He finished the year with a sack in three straight games.
"I feel good. I always want to do better," Watt said. "I felt I’ve left a lot of plays out there this year. Wish that I would have played better and made some more plays, but it’s not a game where I’m going to sit here and wish I would have done this, wish I would have done that. I feel like I can make a lot more plays ... Just have to practice hard, keep refining my craft."
Watt will eventually return to Wisconsin, where he'll likely resume an 8,000-calorie-a-day diet to maintain his 252-pound frame for his third season.
Anything helps to find an edge for the end of games. The Steelers lost four games by seven or fewer points in November and December.
"We're nowhere near satisfied with where we can be as a defense," Watt said. "We’ve gotten ourselves here. We have to handle our business first. It’s just frustrating, not being able to put together as many complete games as we know we’re capable of. We understand how competitive the NFL is, and we feel we have a really good team here and we definitely feel we should have won more games than we have. But at the same time we respect the NFL, respect the process, respect everything about this game to be the best we can possibly be."