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Steelers defense welcomes back T.J. Watt, steps up with Minkah Fitzpatrick out

PITTSBURGH -- Cam Heyward didn't think anything of Minkah Fitzpatrick's discomfort at the Pittsburgh Steelers' walk-through on Saturday.

Heyward has come to know Fitzpatrick as a little ornery, so the veteran defensive lineman was surprised to learn in a text from the Steelers safety later in the afternoon that he had surgery to remove his appendix just hours after the two were together.

"We saw him during the walk-through, and Minkah is just grumpy all the time so you're not thinking anything of it," Heyward said. "But after seeing it come across my phone and checking in on him, Mike [Tomlin] even explained to us, he was like, 'First thing first, you gotta take care of the player.' We gotta make sure we take care of our business while Minkah is out."

The Steelers (3-6) did just that with a 20-10 win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Though the Steelers were without Fitzpatrick, they got a boost from the return of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. Though Watt didn't record a sack, his presence elevated the defense from the beginning of the game. He was involved in the first two tackles, and he finished the game with four and a quarterback hit. Watt's presence also helped free up Alex Highsmith, who recorded two sacks.

"Listen here, when I saw him come out and I saw the crowd just screaming, I'm like, OK, he's fixing to make a statement," safety Damontae Kazee said. "Then I saw the first play. ... I'm like, 'Oh yeah, he's a different animal.' And I just knew, and he started pumping the crowd up, and everybody's screaming. He gave me chills on the field."

After a nine-week layoff, Watt said he didn't feel limited in his first game action back -- except in one way.

"I mean aside from my legs feeling like wet noodles," he said with a laugh. "That was about it."

The secondary grabbed two interceptions, and the defense held the Saints to converting just 25% of their third downs. The Pittsburgh defense held the Saints to just 186 total yards and kept them scoreless in the second half -- only the fifth time New Orleans has been held scoreless in the second half over the past 10 seasons.

Kazee, activated off injured reserve earlier this week, stepped in for Fitzpatrick and grabbed one of the interceptions, while cornerback Levi Wallace grabbed the other.

Both picks came in the fourth quarter, and Kazee's was especially crucial as he took the ball away from Jarvis Landry on what would've been a deep completion on third-and-5 with the Saints trailing by just three. Instead, Kazee's interception gave the Steelers the ball, and quarterback Kenny Pickett capped off a short drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to give the Steelers a two-score lead.

"We've seen [Kazee] itching to get back, wanting to get back and just the amount of preparation that he put in this week," Watt said. "He was one of the big guys about wanting splash, wanting to make plays, and he went out and did it. Super happy for him."

In addition to the pick, Kazee also finished the game with four tackles. The secondary, gashed for big pass plays in losses to Buffalo, Miami and Philadelphia, kept the Saints from doing the same thing. Their longest completion was 18 yards, and the longest run went for 14.

"At the end of the day, we just know as DBs, it always comes down to us," Kazee said. "And just know when Mink gets back, it's gonna be a crazy story."