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Early reviews on Steelers rookie T.J. Watt are glowing

| Wednesday, June 14, 2017, 6:36 p.m.

One for the thumb has taken on a new meaning for Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter this spring.

Porter, who played on the Super Bowl team that brought the Steelers their fifth championship ring, can use his fingers to gauge the mistakes first-round draft pick T.J. Watt has made through three weeks of OTAs and the early part of minicamp.

“As many practices as we've had, I can count how many mistakes he's had on one hand,” Porter said Wednesday. “And that's rare.”

Rare enough for Watt's development to reach the point where he could replace James Harrison as a starter when the Steelers open the season Sept. 10 in Cleveland?

“When we get to that bridge, we'll cross it,” Porter said. “Right now, he's just doing the work he's supposed to. As we get further into this thing and how it plays out, we'll go from there.”

Watt, who became the final Steelers rookie to sign his four-year contract Wednesday, has taken advantage of Harrison's time off the field during OTAs and minicamp. While the Steelers have limited the 39-year-old Harrison's work to conditioning, Watt has received most of the first-team reps at outside linebacker during practices.

“The above-the-neck element of the game isn't too big for him,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Obviously, that will be challenged further once we include the pads element of the game. But he's been impressive from an assignment standpoint thus far for a guy in his position.”

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler said Watt quickly has grasped the nuances of the Steelers' 3-4 defensive scheme.

“That will accelerate his playing time because he knows what to do,” Butler said. “We can't put them out there if they don't know what to do.”

Watt admitted to being a bit overwhelmed when he participated in rookie minicamp in early May and said the playbook has expanded “1,000 times” since then.

“I thought it was very hard,” Watt said. “Looking back, it was very basic. Now I feel like I know the playbook pretty well — not as well as I'd like to know it. There are a lot of nuances and stuff to understand. But I feel I'm getting a grasp, and that's allowing me to play more and more faster and interact with those guys better.”

After letting former first-round outside linebacker Jarvis Jones leave in free agency, the Steelers drafted Watt with the 30th overall pick with the intention of him one day replacing Harrison.

Last year, the Steelers used a four-man rotation at outside linebacker for the first half of the season. That ended when Bud Dupree returned from injured reserve, which coincided with Harrison talking the majority of snaps on the other side. Harrison led the Steelers with five sacks, one-half more than Dupree.

It was thought the Steelers might switch the formula this year, with Harrison starting early and Watt working into the rotation once he is comfortable playing within the Steelers' system. According to Porter, that might not be necessary.

“From what T.J. has shown me so far, he's acclimated,” Porter said. “I feel comfortable with him being out there, his learning curve is real good. I think with the reps he's getting, it is helping him prepare and get more comfortable with the defense.”

Training camp is the next hurdle Watt must overcome, when the pads come out and the exhibition games begin.

“Learning the defense is what we get out of this,” Porter said, referring to spring workouts. “When we get to Latrobe and the preseason settings, everything is coming together because it's live. There are some plays (now) that we think you could have made, but we don't know because you've got a T-shirt on.

“Once we get to live … and you can take people to the ground, that's when you really find out what you've got.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers first round pick T.J. Watt goes through drills during minicamp Wednesday, June 14, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers first round pick T.J. Watt goes through drills during mini camp Wednesday, June 14, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
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