PITTSBURGH (AP) — T.J. Watt felt the familiar and still indescribable jolt the moment he emerged from the tunnel.
Two months spent standing on the sideline while his torn left pectoral muscle healed deprived the Pittsburgh star linebacker of the lifeblood that sustains him and the Steelers of a player that can change the arcs of games, if not entire seasons.
No wonder Watt took a second on Sunday to bask in a moment that seemed far away during his lengthy rehab, one that not coincidentally was in lockstep with his team’s worst start in eight years.
“You wish you could freeze time for just one second,” Watt said.
That may be beyond Watt’s control. Something far more attainable is the formula the Steelers rediscovered against New Orleans, one they hope could serve as the foundation of a second-half push.
Kenny Pickett and George Pickens ran for 1-yard touchdowns and Pittsburgh’s rejuvenated defense — the one with Watt’s No. 90 once again a blur coming off the edge — shut down the Saints late in a 20-10 victory that provided fuel to Watt’s belief there is still time for the Steelers to make something out of 2022.
“I’m here to make plays and help make a difference in the game,” said Watt, who had four tackles and a quarterback hit. “That’s what I’m going to continue to try and do.”
Any path Pittsburgh (3-6) navigates to be a factor down the stretch surely relies on Watt’s presence. The Steelers’ win over New Orleans (3-7) looked a bit like their Week 1 upset in Cincinnati, when the defense produced sacks and turnovers with startling regularity.
Then Watt went down and things quickly went sideways. Pittsburgh’s performance against the sputtering Saints felt like a welcome return to normalcy.
“(TJ) is still that guy,” said outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, whose two sacks boosted his season total to 8 1/2. “It was exciting to have him back. We know what type of defense we can be (with him). We just need to build on it.”
It wasn’t just the defense that rediscovered its identity. Pittsburgh ran for a season-best 217 yards — including 99 by Najee Harris and 51 by Pickett — and didn’t turn it over for the third time this season. The Steelers are 3-0 in those games.
Pickett completed 18 of 30 passes for 199 yards without an interception. He also shook off a tweaked left ankle to convert a couple of late quarterback sneaks, including a 1-yard dive with 8:40 to play that gave the Steelers a 10-point lead the defense made sure was more than enough.
“It was a step in the right direction,” Pickett said. “It’s not where we need to be or where we want to be but it’s a good start.”
The Saints, hoping to stay in the mix in the underwhelming NFC South, instead dropped their second straight.
Andy Dalton connected on 17 of 27 for 174 yards with a touchdown and two late picks. The first, a deflection snared by recently activated Steelers safety Damontae Kazee, set up Pickett’s touchdown run. The second — which came one series after Dalton was stuffed on a botched fourth-down quarterback sneak — allowed the Steelers to seal it.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t make enough plays,” said Dalton, who fell to 3-14 in his career against Pittsburgh. “That’s what it came down to. We weren’t able to sustain drives and that led to us not scoring enough points.”
The Saints largely beat themselves. Though the defense sacked Pickett six times, it also committed six penalties that gave the Steelers a first down, including a pass interference call against Paulson Adebo in the end zone that set up Pickett’s score. New Orleans was flagged 10 times for 74 yards in all.
“There’s just a lot of different areas that we’ve got to improve on,” said Saints coach Dennis Allen, who declined to answer when asked if he was considering going back to Jameis Winston at quarterback.
New Orleans’ miscues and a revived Pittsburgh running game allowed the Steelers to hold the ball for nearly 39 minutes and keep their defense fresh.
While Watt admitted his legs felt like “wet noodles” at one point, he hardly looked rusty. Neither did a defense that looked formidable even without safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who underwent an emergency appendectomy on Saturday.
Kazee, making his first start with the Steelers, filled in and effectively turned the game for good with his 13th career interception.
It was the kind of momentum-shifting play that largely went missing during Watt’s absence. Now Watt is back, his unique energy inspiring his teammates along the way.
“TJ’s a different animal,” Kazee said. “He started pumping the crowd up and everybody is screaming and I’m like ‘Oh, you gave me chills on the field.’”
Saints: Lost LT James Hurst to a concussion.
Steelers: LB Myles Jack, Pittsburgh’s leading tackler, suited up but did not play due to a knee injury.
Saints: Host the Los Angeles Rams next Sunday.
Steelers: Welcome Cincinnati next Sunday.