PITTSBURGH — Crunch time was the perfect time for T.J. Watt to show why he gets the big bucks.
The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker was a complete monster in overtime on Sunday night, extinguishing one drive with a sack that pushed Seattle out of field goal range then coming back a few minutes later with the sack and forced fumble that set up Chris Boswell’s game-winning kick.
Talk about big-time players producing big plays.
“No question,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the 23-20 win. “That’s how he’s compensated.”
Before the start of the season, Watt signed a four-year, $112 million extension with $80 million guaranteed that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid defender.
It sure seemed like money well-spent with the Steelers in survival mode after the Seahawks – playing without injured star quarterback Russell Wilson for the first time in 166 games – provided quite a scare to force overtime.
It wasn’t so much that Wilson’s fill-in, Geno Smith, lit up the night. But Smith was efficient, protected the football and received a huge boost from a rushing attack that included a 101-yard night from Alex Collins.
Too bad the Seahawks (2-4) couldn’t find an answer for Watt, who led a charge that sacked Smith five times and made the clutch plays to close out a contest that allowed the Steelers (3-3) to hit .500 again for the first time since Week 2.
Watt’s final act came after Pittsburgh pinned the Seahawks at their 15-yard line on their second possession of the overtime. He blew around left end and chopped the football loose from Smith, with the fumble recovered by Devin Bush. It was the only turnover of the night committed by Smith, who made his first start in nearly four years and passed for 209 yards, with a 99.6 efficiency rating.
The biggest mishap, though, set Pittsburgh up at the Seahawks 16-yard line, the ideal positioning for Boswell to boot a 37-yard kick.
“He’s a gamer,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said of Watt. “A player. A rare breed.”
Watt’s stat line from Sunday night said as much: 7 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, 3 batted passes, 1 forced fumble.
And, of course, the play that allowed the Steelers and their faithful at Heinz Field to exhale.
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“We were happy to have the opportunity to close the game out as a defense,” Watt said. “It was sudden death on the last drive and we love playing defense in a situation like that.”
Watt called it a “resilient” performance, which is what happens when a defense that allowed 18 rushing yards in the first half winds up allowing a 100-yard rusher for the first time all season. You call it “resilient” when you come back to win after blowing a 14-point halftime lead.
Without Wilson, who had the NFL’s longest active streak of consecutive starts by a quarterback (165) snapped after undergoing surgery last week on an injured finger, the Seahawks flipped the script for their offense after halftime and began pounding at Pittsburgh with the running game.
On the first possession of the second half, Seattle put together a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that saw Smith throw just once. That was the formula that got the Seahawks back into the game.
At the end of regulation, the kickers tested their nerves and skills. Boswell nailed a 52-yarder with 1:30 remaining in the fourth quarter to put the Steelers up 20-17. Then Jason Myers booted a 43-yard field goal as time expired to force overtime.
The Steelers, headed into a bye week, will have much to contemplate. When he watches the game tape, Tomlin will rue the missed tackles that enabled chunks of yards on several plays. And he’ll bemoan the inconsistency of his rushing attack while noticing the hit-or-miss moments from his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 229 yards with a touchdown, with no picks and a 94.7 efficiency measure.
Rather than rag on the blemishes, Tomlin hailed the effort. They know. This one nearly slipped away.
“We know we’re not a perfect team,” said Heyward, the defensive end who notched his 60th career sack to tie a franchise record for D-linemen. “Who says it has to be perfect? We just have to get the W’s.”
Mission accomplished. The hard way.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Seahawks, without Russell Wilson, scare Steelers before falling in OT