The Cleveland Browns made some noise earlier this week with the trade for veteran pass rusher Za’Darius Smith officially going through. The multi-time Pro Bowler further bolsters a Cleveland pass rush that features Myles Garrett and also includes Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who was signed to a lucrative deal in free agency.
That move by Browns GM Andrew Berry has led to some talk about who the best pass rush duo in the NFL is at this point in time. While many will settle on the Browns with Garrett, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Smith, who has 54.5 career sacks, former NFL safety and current Good Morning Football co-host Jason McCourty stated Wednesday morning that the best duo certainly resides in the AFC North, but that it is in Pittsburgh.
Of course, McCourty is talking about 2021 Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.
“I’m gonna go down the road to Pittsburgh and look at the duo they have forming there. Alex Highsmith on the other side had 14.5 sacks last year. [T.J.] Watt injured, only played in 10 games. If he gets back to former, 22.5 sacks in 2021, I think these two can make up the best pass rushing duo,” McCourty said, according to video via NFL.com. “Don’t forget, Cam Heyward’s on the team, too, and he had 10.5 sacks last year as well. I think Alex Highsmith stepping up in Watt’s absence last year and now T.J. Watt coming back full strength, I think those two coming off the edge can really challenge the Browns with Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith, so I’m gonna go with Pittsburgh.”
On paper, the duo of Garrett and Smith, not to mention the depth pieces like Okoronkwo and rookie Isaiah McGuire form quite a pass rush group for the Browns. But there is something to be said for playing together, knowing what each other likes to do in certain situations and how to play off of each other.
Entering Year 4 together, that’s what Watt and Highsmith have.
Combined, the two have recorded 65.5 sacks in three seasons from 2020 when Highsmith was drafted, until now. Watt had a historic year in 2021, recording 22.5 sacks to tie the single-season sacks record with Michael Strahan, while Highsmith put up 6.0 sacks opposite him and really developed into a key run defender that season.
In 2022, things got off to a fast start as Watt and Highsmith wrecked the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1 with Highsmith recording 3.0 sacks to open the season while Watt recorded a sack and an interception in the overtime win over the AFC North rivals. However, Watt was injured late in that win and missed the next seven games. He returned in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints after the Steelers’ Week 9 bye.
In that Week 10 matchup, Highsmith went off, recording 2.0 sacks and a forced fumble, winning the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award, which not coincidentally came with Watt opposite him.
The two play very well together and really give offenses headaches. It also helps that having a star like Cam Heyward on the defensive line draws attention from offenses as well.
Garrett and Smith might be a formidable duo on paper, but Highsmith and Watt have the history where it matters most right now: on the field.