T.J. Watt, Steelers' defense step to fore with impressive opener

CLEVELAND -- The Pittsburgh Steelers went on the road and sacked the quarterback seven times without two of their top pass-rushers.

Never mind that they did this in Cleveland, where they've recorded three consecutive games of seven sacks. OK, location matters a little. But the 21-18 win over the Browns served notice that Pittsburgh has a plan in place that it wants to follow.

The Steelers want to win games hitting the quarterback, preferably with four pass-rushers. And they didn't have to blitz a whole lot to get past the Browns' high-priced offensive line and to quarterback DeShone Kizer.

"This is a game of pressure, a game of momentum," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "When you get sacks, it gives you a lot of momentum and puts them in a position they want to be in. That's one thing we've been harping on this offseason is getting pressure with four guys. It showed up today."

The Steelers mixed in blitzes when necessary, but when in nickel defense on third downs, it's up to Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt to create havoc.

One problem: Dupree (shoulder) and Tuitt (biceps) missed most of the game. Dupree was inactive and Tuitt left the game after the first series.

One solution: Anthony Chickillo got two sacks as Dupree's replacement, and nose tackle Javon Hargrave added a sack to offset the loss of Tuitt. Even new Steeler and former Brown Joe Haden -- who got a game ball from teammates in his old stadium -- came off the edge with a corner-blitz sack. That move was made possible because the Steelers were getting organic pressure with the front four.

Here's another problem: When a front four struggles to get into the backfield, the good quarterbacks have their way. The Steelers tried this in New England last year and, well ... yeah.

But the Steelers would like to think this is a different team. Haden gives them a capable outside corner. The Steelers have more depth along the defensive line and at outside linebacker than they've had in years.

And Watt looks legit, so much so that his earning the starting job over James Harrison was never really debated in the preseason. He took ownership of the job and did something with it Sunday.

Shazier calls Watt a "great hustler," getting sacks on plays that others would stop pursuing after a few seconds of rushing. Heyward calls him a "smart rusher" who doesn't waste movements or put the defense in a bad situation.

"We worked off each other -- rush and coverage worked together really well today," Watt said. "I feel like there were a few more plays left out on the field."

The Steelers can't afford to miss on those plays if they want to make a title run. But this was about the best start possible for a team hoping to go from good to great.