EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — T.J. Watt had a strong start and Joshua Dobbs a satisfying finish, giving two of the Steelers’ high-profile draft picks something to savor in their professional debuts.
Watt had two sacks in the first quarter, and Dobbs overcame a rocky start to throw one touchdown pass (and nearly another) in the Steelers’ 20-12 victory over the New York Giants in their preseason opener Friday night.
Watt, the first-round draft pick from Wisconsin, started at right outside linebacker and brought down Giants quarterback Josh Johnson for losses of 3 and 8 yards in the opening quarter. He finished with four tackles and had a pass defensed.
“I felt like I belong here,” Watt said. “I came into this game with a certain amount of confidence because of the work we put in.”
Dobbs, the fourth-round pick from Tennessee, started ahead of a resting Ben Roethlisberger and an injured Landry Jones. He threw two interceptions in the first half but fired a 28-yard touchdown pass to Cobi Hamilton late in the half for a 10-9 lead. In the third quarter, an apparent 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Xavier Grimble was negated by Brian Mihalik’s holding penalty.
“I liked their demeanor,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I thought both guys were good communicators in the game. It didn’t feel like it was too big for them from that perspective.”
Unlike Watt, Dobbs got off to a forgettable start. He didn’t heed Roethlisberger’s advice from earlier in the week when the franchise starter told the rookie: “Make sure you throw the ball to our color.”
Through four series, Dobbs was 1 of 5 for 4 yards, and his interceptions led to two Giants field goals and a 6-0 deficit for the Steelers.
Dobbs was 5 of 10 for 83 yards at the half and finished 8 of 15 for 100 yards and a 56.9 passer rating. He exited with the Steelers holding a 13-12 lead.
“I was able to respond from a little adversity,” Dobbs said. “It was a good start, and I’ll be able to build off this as well.”
Fourth-stringer Bart Houston took over with 2 minutes, 31 seconds left in the third quarter. On his first series, Houston led the Steelers on a nine-play, 53-yard drive. Terrell Watson scored on a 15-yard run to give the Steelers a 20-12 lead.
Houston was 2 of 7 for 24 yards and a 41.4 rating.
Chris Boswell kicked field goals of 48 and 37 yards.
The Steelers had seven sacks, led by three from Arthur Moats, who also had an interception. Moats and Watt logged most of the snaps at outside linebacker because the Steelers had only three healthy players at the position. This led to Watt also playing at left outside linebacker after working exclusively on the right side during training camp.
“I was expecting to play as much as they wanted me to,” Watt said. “I’m never going to turn down reps.”
Cornerback Mike Hilton helped his chance of making the 53-man roster by registering a sack and recovering a fumble that set up the Dobbs-to-Hamilton touchdown.
The Steelers held the Giants to four field goals: two apiece by Mike Nugent and Aldrick Rosas.
The healthy first-team offensive linemen — Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster — logged 12 snaps on four drives before departing.
On the first play of the Steelers’ third drive, Dobbs underthrew Darrius Heyward-Bey in the left flat at midfield. Valentino Blake made a diving interception and returned the ball 11 yards. This led to Rosas’ 27-yard field goal.
Second-round draft pick JuJu Smith-Schuster, who joined Heyward-Bey in the starting lineup, suffered a concussion while trying to make a tackle after the interception. He did not return.
Dobbs threw his second interception on the next series. On third-and-4 at the Steelers’ 37, he looked for Eli Rogers across the middle but found defensive end Devin Taylor instead. Taylor rumbled 23 yards, putting the Giants at the Steelers’ 17. This set up Nugent’s 30-yard field goal.
“Football is a game of adversity,” Dobbs said. “A couple of learing opportunities occurred quickly in the game, but we were able to learn from them and respond well.”
Five members of the anticipated season-opening defense started against the Giants: the defensive front of Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt, plus inside linebacker Vince Williams and cornerback Ross Cockrell.
They were pulled after the fourth series.
The second unit immediately gave up a nine-play drive that advanced to the Steelers’ 24. Hilton’s 10-yard sack of Geno Smith on third down pushed the Giants to the brink of field-goal range, but Rosas connected on a 52-yard attempt for a 9-3 lead.
Another big play by Hilton helped the Steelers take their first lead. Donte Deayon muffed Jordan Berry’s punt, and Hilton pounced on the ball at the Giants’ 28 with 40 seconds left in the half.
On the next play, Dobbs found Hamilton in single coverage down the right side, hitting him in stride for the touchdown.
Moats’ interception set up Boswell’s second field goal and a 13-12 lead.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.