The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns Monday night 26-22 in a back-and-forth affair with splash plays and big hits on both sides. Both teams suffered notable injuries, having impactful players knocked out of the game in a slugfest of an AFC North matchup.
In the end, Pittsburgh prevailed due in large part to the dynamic duo of OLBs T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. Watt and Highsmith were literally game changers for Pittsburgh Monday night as both edge rushers scored touchdowns, giving Pittsburgh more points on the board than their offense did on the night. The two combined for a valiant effort with DL Cameron Heyward out of the game and S Minkah Fitzpatrick missing nearly a half after suffering a chest injury, steeping up in a big way to get Pittsburgh the win and off to a good start in the AFC North chase.
It started right off the bat on Cleveland’s first possession of the game as Pittsburgh dropped Highsmith into coverage near the bottom of your screen, lined up overtop the tight end in the slot. The tight end misses the catch on the quick out route, popping the ball in the air where S Minkah Fitzpatrick nearly makes the play, but pops the ball in the air again, landing in Highsmith’s arms as he takes off up the sideline and scoots into the end zone for the defensive touchdown.
Watt and Highsmith were meeting at the ball all night both against the run as well as pass rushers. There were several instances on Monday night where both outside linebackers converged on the ballcarrier to make the tackle against the run as you can see in the clips below with Highsmith flying to the ball untouched in the first clip with Watt pushing the tight end back to get a hand on RB Nick Chubb in the backfield. We see a similar convergence on the football in the second clip with Watt fighting through the A-gap while Highsmith sets the edge then crashes down on the runner.
Here’s an example where both Watt and Highsmith meet at the quarterback with QB Deshaun Watson faking the give to the runner, then keeps it himself as he tries to get outside on the RPO. Highsmith tracks him down, forcing Watson to cut back inside right into Watt coming from behind as both defenders wrap him up for a negative play.
T.J. Watt brought back his nickname “T.J. Swat” Monday night against Cleveland has he made an impact in the passing game as well. Watch on this play where Watt runs a stunt with DL Montravius Adams, looping around from the edge to the inside. He gets to RG Wyatt Teller as Watson starts to throw, and proceeds to leap up in the air, batting the pass down for an incompletion.
Along with knocking down passes, Watt also added to his sack total on the season against the Browns, officially breaking OLB James Harrison’s all-time Steelers sack record with 81.5 sacks and counting. The record-breaking sack came on this play dips and rips through rookie RT Dawand Jones, getting around the corner into the pocket where Watt chases down Watson as he attempts to flee, wrapping him up by the legs and brings him to the ground to cement his spot in Steelers’ lore.
Alex Highsmith got his sack later in the game when Pittsburgh needed it most. Much like he has done his entire career, Highsmith gets the best of LT Jedrick Wills on this play in the fourth quarter with Cleveland up 22-19. Highsmith wins with pure speed around the corner, beating Wills to the edge as he gets to Watson, hitting him from behind and knocks the ball out as he swings Watson to the ground. T.J. Watt recovers the fumble, picks it up, and rumbles into the end zone for the go-ahead score to put Pittsburgh on top.
T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith came up in a big way for Pittsburgh on Monday night, combining for 11 total tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, a pass deflection, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and two defensive touchdowns. That’s some splash by Pittsburgh’s starting outside linebackers, putting on a show reminiscent of the days that OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley played opposite each other and terrorized opposing offenses.
Pittsburgh doesn’t win Monday night without Watt and Highsmith’s efforts, literally putting points on the board while kicking Cleveland off the field in the process. Facing a stout pass rush tandem of DEs Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith on the other team, the combination of Watt and Highsmith came out on top, making their case as possibly the best pass rush tandem in all of football.
They have the lucrative contracts, the stats, and the splash plays to suggest as much helping Pittsburgh wreak havoc on Cleveland’s offense. Should the offense continue to struggle, the Steelers will rely on Watt and Highsmith to continue brings splash to the table on defense, not only keeping them in games, but also making game-changing plays to swing the outcome in Pittsburgh’s favor.