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Steelers 41, Falcons 17: T.J. Watt must keep leading defense

The Steelers have taken a defensive player in the first round of the draft six years in a row and counting. Before 2013, their longest string of first-round defensive draft picks had been two years.

That draft strategy hadn’t exactly paid off through the first four weeks of the 2018 season. Part of the problem is that only two of those six selections have made a significant impact.

One of them is Ryan Shazier, and we all know that losing him has been a big blow. The Steelers need someone else to become the heart of the defense.

There’s no open audition to fill that need. There’s one guy who has shown he can do it. He’s the only other one of those six first-rounders (Terrell Edmunds gets a pass, too early to judge him) who isn’t a bust candidate, even if he had been barely visible over the last three weeks.

T.J. Watt had three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hits in Sunday’s 41-17 win over the Falcons at Heinz Field. He also led the team with eight tackles, including six solo tackles, according to

Watt put up similar game-wrecking numbers the only other time this season that the Steelers defense has looked respectable. He had three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and 10 tackles (not to mention the tie-salvaging blocked field goal) in the 21-21 Week 1 stalemate at Cleveland.

In the three games in between, Watt totaled three quarterback hits, 10 tackles and no sacks.

The Steelers took Watt in the first round of the 2017 draft, and he seemed destined for stardom after a two-sack game with an interception in a Week 1 win at Cleveland. He plateaued as the season went on even if it was still a thumbs-up rookie campaign with seven sacks.

Take away Week 1 games in Cleveland, however, and Watt entered Sunday with five sacks in his first 19 career games.

Not to blame Watt for the Steelers’ defensive woes in weeks 2-4 this season. Nobody could tackle against the Ravens. But the Steelers could use a little more consistency from Watt. His performance on Sunday can’t be a once-a-month kind of thing.

At the same time, Watt isn’t the only Steelers defender who made a difference on Sunday. The Steelers sacked Matt Ryan six times with Cameron Heyward adding 1.5 sacks and Jon Bostic sharing a sack. L.J. Fort, who helped fill in for an injured Vince Williams, had a sack and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown that made it 41-17 and really put the game away with less than four minutes left.

The Steelers also racked up 11 tackles for loss. Heyward, Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo all had 1.5 of those. Fort had one and Bostic and Javon Hargrave both were credited with half of a negative-yardage tackle.

Joe Haden had five tackles, but his biggest contribution didn’t show up on the stat sheet. Not under his name, anyway.

Haden held Julio Jones without a catch for the first three quarters. All five of Jones’ catches for 62 yards came with the Falcons down at least 17 points.

It’s a big reason the Steelers were able to beat a quarterback of Ryan’s caliber for the first time in more than two years.

This victory evened the Steelers’ record at 2-2-1, and oddly enough it also evened the career passer ratings of Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger. They’re tied for seventh on the active list at 94.0. The last time the Steelers beat a quarterback with a career passer rating above 90 was Week 1 of the 2016 season, a 38-16 road win over Kirk Cousins and the Redskins.

Football fans chanting “De-Fense!” in unison is one of sport’s most clichéd rituals. But there seemed to be a deeper meaning when the Heinz Field crowd did it early in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

The Steelers led 27-10 and the Falcons had the ball in Steelers territory when the chant started. There was a feeling that not only were the fans asking for a stop, but that they also were saluting the maligned unit for what it had done in the first three quarters. It was an electric moment, even if it was followed by a brief but scary flashback.

The Falcons scored a touchdown on that drive to pull to within 27-17 with 12:28 left. Just about every Steelers fan of legal drinking age might have felt like reaching for the bottle at that point, because most people old enough to drink are old enough to remember the Falcons’ visit to Heinz Field in 2002, when the Steelers blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and settled for a 34-34 tie.

Antonio Brown and James Conner made sure history didn’t repeat itself when they covered 75 yards in less than three minutes, with Roethlisberger throwing a 47-yard touchdown pass to Brown to make it 34-17.

Brown caught six passes and registered season highs with two touchdowns and 101 yards. Conner ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Steelers in their most convincing win of the season not only on the scoreboard but in their staredown with Le’Veon Bell.

Conner averaged 5.2 yards per carry and also caught four passes for 75 yards. It looked on Sunday like Bell would have to earn playing time if he ever does decide to re-join the Steelers.

Who knows when and if Bell will report. It seems he and his agent are talking to reporters more than they are the Steelers. The only thing that is becoming increasingly clear when it comes to the Steelers’ running back situation is that they won’t have to draft one in the first round next year.

Maybe the Steelers will draft a defensive player in the first round for the seventh straight year, but thanks to Watt and the rest of the defense on Sunday, Steelers fans don’t have to dive into mock drafts just yet. With an opportunity to pull to within a half-game of first place in the AFC North next week at Cincinnati, there’s still a lot to play for this season.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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