PITTSBURGH (AP)Nick Herbig took offense to the question.
Asked if T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith might be the best edge-rushing tandem in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie outside linebacker who has essentially attached himself to his two superstar teammates since training camp began just shook his head.
“Might be?” Herbig said, with more than a tinge of sarcasm. “Might be? Look at the tape, bro.”
Look at the standings, too.
The Steelers enter their bye week at 3-2 and atop the AFC North almost in spite of an offense that still can’t seem to get out of its own way. They’ve survived thanks in large part to two players who are well aware of the franchise’s great pass-rush duos of the past – Hall of Famer Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd and James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to name just two – and embraced the standard that comes with it.
Week in and week out, opponents put together game plans trying to find a way to keep Watt and Highsmith in check. And week in and (nearly) week out, they find a way to create the kind of chaos that can change the momentum of games and the arcs of seasons.
Highsmith is picking off DeShaun Watson on the first snap in Week 2 and running it back for a touchdown. Watt is pouncing on a Watson fumble and taking it in for the winning score a few hours later. There they were in the final minutes last week against Baltimore, Highsmith knocking the ball loose and Watt jumping on top of it to seal a victory that for about 55 minutes seemed unlikely at best.
“Those guys every week have the mindset that we have to set the tone,” outside linebackers coach Denzel Martin said. “We’re not waiting for somebody else to make the play. We’re going to make the play and change the game.”
They’re doing it with remarkable consistency.
Watt already has eight sacks, putting him ahead of his pace in 2021 when he tied the NFL single-season record with 22 1/2 on his way to being named Defensive Player of the Year. The 29-year-old youngest member of the Watt NFL clan that includes now-retired three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt also has two forced fumbles and has swatted down four passes.
Not that Watt wants to talk about it. He figures he’s just doing his job.
“We’re not paid to do anything other than go out there and make as many plays as possible and try to deliver the ball to the offense,” Watt said in his trademark monotone that belies the frenzied blur his No. 90 becomes at the snap.
Highsmith downplays his own contributions. Maybe he shouldn’t. He proved during Watt’s extended absence last season due to a torn pectoral muscle that he could become a disruptive force in his own right. He collected a career-best 14 1/2 sacks and his five forced fumbles led the NFL.
The Steelers signed him to a lucrative four-year extension over the summer, meaning Watt and Highsmith will spend their primes standing on opposite ends of the line of scrimmage, using a level of communication that’s become almost ESP-like to render opposing game plans useless.
The Browns were trying to nurse a fourth-quarter lead on Sept. 18 when they faced second-and-9 at the Cleveland 20. Highsmith and Watt suspected a play-action pass was coming. A little hand signal to each other led them to line up a little wider than usual hoping for a better angle of attack.
Sure enough, Watson faked a handoff and dropped back to pass. Highsmith cut inside Browns left tackle Jedrick Willis and swatted the ball out of Watson’s hands. Watt, who says he basically blacks out during plays and that makes them sometimes difficult to remember, scooped it up and sprinted 16 yards to the end zone.
Asked if it feels as if he and Watt seem to share the same brain, Highsmith just smiled and said: “Sometimes.”
It’s a connection that’s been building from the moment the Steelers selected Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 draft. He arrived in Pittsburgh as a project of sorts after playing defensive end at Charlotte. He poured himself into his craft, with Watt playing the eager mentor.
Herbig points out Watt and Highsmith are rarely at their lockers, instead preferring the sanctity of the film room, though the conversation doesn’t stop when they head home. The outside linebackers have a text thread that can light up each other’s phones at seemingly all hours.
“They’re calling all throughout the night talking,” Martin said. “They can be with their families, their wives. They’re calling, texting about linemen, how they set up, what might work.”
Their commitment to their bodies – Watt doesn’t really overindulge during the offseason, wary of how that extra slice of pizza might affect him in the fall – and their almost maniacal approach to their work sets an example that basically forces everyone below them on the depth chart to catch up.
“Those guys practice every day like they’re in a game,” said veteran linebacker Markus Golden, who played with J.J. Watt in Arizona before joining the Steelers in the offseason. “They’ve just got it all. On and off the field.”
Highsmith figures it’s what’s expected when you play his position in a place that likes to call itself “Blitzburg.” The team’s history is littered with defensive game wreckers. It’s a legacy Watt and Highsmith take seriously.
Yes, they are talented individually. Together, they have the chance to become something special.
“I think we feed off each other, we build off each other,” Highsmith said. “So I think we just got to continue to do that week in, week out. I think our best ball is still in front of us.”
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