PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers spent the better part of four years trying to retool at outside linebacker, searching for the kind of players who could create the chaos that came so easily to James Harrison and Lamar Woodley in their primes.
The search, it seems, may finally be over.
Rookie T.J. Watt looked every bit as disruptive as big brother J.J. in his NFL debut last Sunday, picking up two sacks and adding an interception in Pittsburgh’s 21-18 victory over Cleveland. Anthony Chickillo, filling in while Bud Dupree tended to an injured shoulder, took down Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer twice and fell on a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, never one to get carried away, described Watt’s afternoon as "a good start" and downplayed the idea that Chickillo was some sort of revelation.
"Bud missed a significant time in the preseason, so that wasn’t Chickillo’s first time running with the first group," Tomlin said.
Maybe, but the quality and the quantity of their play brought the youth movement outside linebackers coach Joey Porter laid out so bluntly over the summer to frenetic, productive life.
Porter caused a stir during training camp when he said the rotation at outside linebacker was over. That Watt and Bud Dupree would take the majority of snaps in 2017, a marked departure from a position that’s basically been a time share of sorts in recent years, mostly because the Steelers couldn’t find someone to replace the seemingly ageless James Harrison other than Harrison himself.
Yet veteran Arthur Moats and the 39-year-old Harrison played just four defensive snaps each in Cleveland, Harrison’s lightest workload in over a decade. Chickillo and Watt, meanwhile, were on the field for 62.
It’s just one game. Circumstances change. Dupree was limited in practice on Wednesday and is optimistic he’ll be ready when the Steelers welcome Minnesota in the home opener at Heinz Field on Sunday, meaning Chickillo would fall back into a reserve role. Throw in Harrison’s longevity, insane preparation and production — he posted a team-high 5 1/?2 sacks in 2016 and has 15 1/?2 in his unlikely second act in Pittsburgh following an 18-day retirement in 2014 — and making any broad conclusions out of four quarters is an iffy proposition at best.
Still, it looks like the kids can play.
"I don’t really have numbers of what I want to do in a game," Watt said. "I just want to go out there and play my absolute best. I’ll never be able to play as good as I want to."
Consider the standards impossibly high. Yet Watt and Chickillo hardly appeared overcome by the stage even if they still consider themselves in the embryonic stages of their development. Both came to their current position late in their football lives. Watt started his college career at Wisconsin as a tight end. Chickillo spent four years on the defensive line at Miami.
Yet there they were in Cleveland lining up on the edge and taking turns chasing Kizer all over the field.
"Any time guys are making plays, the energy is contagious," Chickillo said.
The results too. While Chickillo stressed he was simply happy to leave with a victory, his performance showcased the fruits of two years of labor after the Steelers took a flyer on him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft.
"I was a blank canvas when I got here," Chickillo said.
One the coaching staff and Chickillo spent the better part of two years transforming. He dropped 40 pounds during his rookie season, going from 285 to 245 while gaining the support of special teams coach Danny Smith, who was won over by Chickillo’s relentlessness.
Chickillo started seven games at linebacker in 2016 due to injury, the results were promising but hardly spectacular.
And then Sunday came. While the majority of his family hunkered down in Florida riding out Hurricane Irma, Chickillo did something he promised them he’d always do regardless of the circumstances: he carried on the family business. Grandfather Nick spent a season with the Chicago Cardinals in the 1950s. Dad Tony played three years for the Jets and the Chargers in the 1980s before kicking around the Arena Football League.
The third generation of Chickillos to play in the NFL figures to stick around considerably longer. If his play against the Browns proved anything, it’s not just that he belongs in the league. But that he can be a difference maker. Watt too.
"I knew both of them had it in them," inside linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "I knew T.J. was going to be a great player and Chick works his butt off and we’ve seen it in camp. When those guys get the opportunity to show what they can do, it makes the whole defense proud."
NOTES: DE Stephon Tuitt (left biceps) did not practice on Wednesday. ... S J.J. Wilcox also sat while going through the concussion protocol.