Ben Roethlisberger had several takeaways from the Pittsburgh Steelers' season-opening win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers' former quarterback was impressed by, among other things, Pittsburgh's dominant defensive performance, Diontae Johnson's balletic sideline reception in overtime, Pat Freiermuth's clutch catches on Pittsburgh's final drive, and Chris Boswell's game-winning, 53-yard field goal.
After the game, Roethlisberger reached out to T.J. Watt, who sustained a pec injury near the end of regulation. The Steelers placed Watt, who had a six tackles, a sack and an interception in last Sunday's win, on injured reserve on Thursday.
"The dude is an absolute man child," Roethlisberger said of Watt during the most recent episode of his recently created show, "Footbahlin with Ben Roethlisberger." "He changes the game. I kind of teased him. I was like, 'You just didn't want them to hand you the Defensive Player of the Year award after Week 1?' Because that's what was happening."
Roethlisberger knows that it's going to take a collective effort from Pittsburgh's defense to help replace Watt, who will miss at least the next four games. He is confident, however, that fellow outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, who tallied three sacks in last Sunday's win, will continue to elevate his game with Watt temporarily out of the lineup.
"Because T.J. requires so much attention, that was freeing up Alex on the other side," Roethlisberger said. "And now, it's going to be a challenge for Alex. I know Alex. Alex is an awesome football player and an awesome person. He works hard, and I think he's going to rise to that occasion to be like, listen, I'm going to fill this void and do what I can to step up on my side."
A third-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Highsmith was thrust into Pittsburgh's starting lineup late in his rookie season when Bud Dupree went down with a season-ending injury. He played well that season while helping the Steelers capture an AFC North division crown. Last season, Highsmith recorded six sacks while being a full-time starter. During training camp this summer, Highsmith told CBS Sports that he has his sights set on a big season for himself and his team in 2022.
Highsmith and the Steelers' defense got off on the right foot in Week 1, sacking Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow seven times and forcing five interceptions. Afterward, Highsmith attributed a significant portion of Pittsburgh's defensive success to the coaching staff.
"I think we were just prepared for those moments,". "I think Coach Tomlin and the rest of the coaching staff did a great job of putting us in those moments in practice and getting us in shape. One thing he always preaches is physical condition proceeds all else. ... I think it just shows the resiliency of our team."
While Watt's presence will be missed, Roethlisberger believes that the Steelers' other defensive leaders -- a group that includes Cameron Heyward, Cam Sutton and Minkah Fitzpatrick -- will continue to put up performances like the one they put on display in Cincinnati in Week 1.
"When I watched (last Sunday's game), I didn't see a team that was just getting lucky or being opportunistic," Roethlisberger said. "I saw a defense that was creating turnovers. That was creating panic. I was watching guys creating a rush and a push that made Joe have to get out of the pocket, that made him a little uncomfortable. ... I think that that's the defense you're going to see."