PITTSBURGH — After T.J. Watt high-stepped through the end zone to celebrate his decisive scoop-and-score, he jogged to the sideline and presented fellow Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher Alex Highsmith with a gift: the football.
Sure Watt scored. But in Watt’s eyes, it was Highsmith who made the play. He’s the one who beat Cleveland Browns left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. with a quick burst around the edge, swatted the ball from quarterback Deshaun Watson and left it bouncing on the turf.
But when Watt handed the football to Highsmith, he refused.
“No, you take it,” Highsmith said.
In Highsmith’s eyes, it was Watt who deserved to keep the ball. He’s the one who had the awareness to pick it up off the turf and return it 17 yards for the eventual game-winning touchdown with 6:58 remaining.
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— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 19, 2023
You take it. No, you. You. You. Back and forth they went until, finally, Highsmith accepted.
In a more metaphorical way, if you’re looking to award a game ball after the Steelers’ 26-22 victory over the Browns, good luck picking between Watt and Highsmith. On the night that Watt recorded sack No. 81.5 to overtake James Harrison for the franchise record, his counterpart might have been an even greater game-wrecking force.
Together, they helped will the Steelers to victory on a night when their short-handed defense got even thinner, the offense was largely inept and, by the end of it, a large swath of fans loudly chanted for offensive coordinator Matt Canada to be fired.
“We needed it,” coach Mike Tomlin said of the performances from Watt and Highsmith. “We expect it. And they delivered.”
The Steelers locked in their dynamic pass-rush tandem this offseason when they inked Highsmith to a four-year, $68 million extension. That highly compensated duo made their presence felt almost as soon as the ball was kicked off Monday. On the Browns’ first play from scrimmage, Watson looked for tight end Harrison Bryant on a 5-yard out.
The ball deflected off of the intended receiver’s hands and landed in safety Minkah Fitzpatrick’s grasp … but only for a brief moment. Bryant’s shoulder sent the pigskin pin-balling. Highsmith snatched it out of the air and returned it 31 yards for the score, his first touchdown since Pop Warner.
“It was kind of in slow motion,” Highsmith said. “I was dropping, and I thought Minkah picked it off. It just popped up, and there it was. I saw some open grass and I just took off.”
WHAT A START ‼️
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— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 19, 2023
Later, in the closing minute of the first half, Watt made history. He entered the game tied with Harrison after recording three sacks in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers. In front of a national television audience on “Monday Night Football,” he blew past Browns rookie right tackle Dawand Jones’ impressive 87-inch wingspan and dragged Watson down by the toe. Watt sprinted to midfield and uncorked his signature leg-kick, this time with just a little extra on it.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t special,” Watt said. “There’s so many people along the way that helped me get to where I am. I can’t stand the individual awards in football just because (Harrison) himself helped me so much my rookie year. He didn’t have to. No one asked him to, but he wanted to, and I appreciate him for that.
“So many of my teammates, coaches, mentors, my brothers, my wife’s support, my parents. There’s just so many people that go into it. It’s not myself out there making the plays.”
‘Pittsburgh brothers’ Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and the race for the Steelers’ sack record
After the impact both edge rushers made in the first half, maybe it was fitting that they converged to produce the game-deciding play.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, the Steelers’ defensive anthem, “Renegade,” blared and the Terrible Towel-twirling faithful whipped themselves into a frenzy. The Browns set up for second-and-9 at their own 20-yard line.
“I just kind of had that feeling it was going to be play-action,” Highsmith said. “I widened out a little bit in my alignment and just shot upfield.”
From the opposite side of the line, Watt was coming off a chip block, so he had time to see it all unfold.
“Thankfully I didn’t dive on it,” Watt said. “I was able to scoop it and score it. And the place went bananas.”
Alex Highsmith on T.J. Watt: “He’s the best in the league at what he does. He shows that every week.” pic.twitter.com/bhxDVNnSb7
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) September 19, 2023
The highlight-reel plays from the electric edge tandem helped the Steelers win a game that was imperfect in so many ways. The offense once again stalled and sputtered. Quarterback Kenny Pickett threw an interception on his first series, and his accuracy came and went throughout the game. The Steelers tallied just nine first downs, accumulated minus-7 yards in the fourth quarter and, somehow, still won.
Defensively, the Steelers allowed 408 yards of offense. That included 198 rushing yards at an average of 5.7 yards per carry. Even though the Steelers’ defense didn’t have to deal with Nick Chubb for nearly three quarters — after he suffered a gruesome knee injury that sent him to a local hospital, backup running back Jerome Ford rushed 16 times for 106 yards, a robust 6.6 yards per carry.
However, splash plays allowed the Steelers’ defense to overcome those deficiencies. Pittsburgh forced four turnovers. And, even though they started the game without one Pro Bowler (Cameron Heyward) and finished without another (Minkah Fitzpatrick), the Steelers’ defense outscored their own offense, 14-12. Largely because of the individual efforts of their edge rushers, Pittsburgh is back to 1-1 following a rock fight of an AFC North win.
“When your back is against the wall, you have two options,” Watt said. “We want to be a team that fights back. Especially as a defense. We want to be a defense that determines outcomes of games.”
Monday night, the edge rushers sure did that.
(Photo of Alex Highsmith, 56, and T.J. Watt, 90: Philip G. Pavely / USA Today)
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