Pittsburgh fell to 0-6 without Watt since his rookie year of 2017 and failed to play behind the line of scrimmage all game, as the defense got bowled over.
"We lost the damn game," defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said after the loss. "I do not know what else is more demoralizing than that. They ran the ball, we got our ass kicked. Simple as that."
A week after not earning a sack, the Steelers took down Jacoby Brissett twice and generated just three total tackles for loss, per the official game book -- zero TFLs in the first half against the Browns and two coming late as Cleveland was in run-mode to churn the clock.
The Steelers pass rush, which generated seven sacks against the Bengals in Week 1 with Watt in the lineup, has gone limp.
The Steelers have a 30.5 QB pressure percent with Watt compared to 19.0 without, according to Next Gen Stats. In six games sans Watt, Pittsburgh is averaging 1.7 sacks -- 3.5 sacks per game with the edge rusher. Only once in those six games have the Steelers earned more than two sacks (Week 17, 2020, when Watt rested, four sacks versus Cleveland), and they've been shut out of the sack column twice.
"We just got to ramp it up," said linebacker Alex Highsmith, who had 1.5 sacks on Thursday. "We put in some time tonight, but at the end of the day, we know the kind of defense that we are, and we know that we have to communicate more pressure. We have to continue to be better."
With Watt placed on injured reserve Sept. 15 and expected to miss around six weeks, Pittsburgh must find a way to play in the opponent's backfield more to avoid going 0-fer in games the reigning AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year misses.