There probably isn’t going to be any part in a season for a team that is 4-7 in which it could have been said that they were anywhere close to flawless. You just don’t get that bad of a record without having major problems very frequently.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers seem to be on the upswing, generally, and not simply because they are now 2-1 in their past three games—the first time they’ve won two out of three on the year—but rather because of what we see on the field, particularly in complementary football.
The defense relinquished the lead on Monday night. The offense went out and got it back. And then the defense closed it. Or perhaps more particularly, Alex Highsmith closed the game with a great final drive that included a sack, marking his first foray into double digits.
“You know who grew up that drive? Alex Highsmith,” teammate Cameron Heyward said of the third-year edge rusher on the latest episode of his Not Just Football podcast. “Gets his sack, his 10th sack of the season, a big tackle for loss, and that’s how we sealed the game.”
The guy on the opposite side of him, T.J. Watt, made a name for himself for closing out games with big plays. Highsmith was able to do that this week, coming up in the big moments when the team needed him most.
Of course, he got the first-down sack to begin the sequence, bringing down Matt Ryan for a seven-yard loss. He knocked the ball loose—his fourth strip-sack of the year, the most in the NFL—though the defense could not recover. On 3rd and 3, he stuffed running back Jonathan Taylor for no gain and then drew pressure on fourth down on an incomplete pass.
And the thing is, I don’t think anybody is really surprised that Highsmith did this. We’ve been watching him all year and saw that he had this in him. It’s not some isolated sequence in his season, more of a culmination of what he’s been doing.
That’s why I’m not sure we can even say that he ‘grew up’ or anything like that. Yes, it was a critical close-out moment, some of the weightiest plays he’s made in his career, but he’s been making plays along the way the whole time. He should be garnering Pro Bowl consideration.
In fact, right now he’s poised to make a run at what was the Steelers’ single-season sack record up until last year. Currently sitting at 10 sacks through 11 games, he needs only six over the final six contests to tie James Harrison for the second-most sacks in a single season in franchise history.
His good buddy Watt put the sack record out of reach last season when he tied the NFL record with 22.5 sacks, but there’s no shame in being second place to that. Yet it’s really hard to say Highsmith has even been second to Watt this year.