T.J. Watt back at practice for Steelers, opening LB's window to return from injured reserve

T.J. Watt hasn't be available to the Steelers since their season-opening win over Cincinnati, but that could soon change.

The edge-rushing linebacker was designated to return from injured reserve on Wednesday, the Steelers announced, opening a 21-day window for Watt to make it back to the active roster. Watt returned to practice Wednesday, but will remain on IR until he is deemed ready for full participation.

The designation follows Watt's initial timeline following the decision to forgo surgery on his injured pectoral muscle in favor of recovery and rehab. He now has three weeks to improve enough to be cleared to play. If he's unable to make it back in that timeframe, he'll stay on IR for the remainder of the season, a less-common outcome that did affect Steelers receiver Calvin Austin III, whose 21-day window expired before he could return.

Without Watt, Pittsburgh's defense has struggled in every area. The Steelers are allowing the most total yards per game and passing yards per game in the Mike Tomlin era (since 2007), while also giving up the second-most points per game in that same span. Their 1.7 sacks per game also stands as the lowest average in the Tomlin era.

This is directly connected to the departure of Watt, who has proven himself as a game-wrecking edge rusher since his arrival as a first-round pick in 2017. Alex Highsmith leads the Steelers with a career-high 6.5 sacks, but it pales in comparison to the pace Watt set last year with his record-tying 22.5 sacks, and without Watt on the field with Highsmith, opposing offenses have been able to dedicate their blocking resources to the Charlotte product.

Although the Steelers have improved in the last two weeks defensively, allowing a combined 34 points between Weeks 6-7, they're still not playing at the standard they've set for themselves.

Watt's return, anticipated at some point in the next three weeks, should provide a major boost to Pittsburgh's defense, which could certainly use it.

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