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Making them count

It was another atypical season for the Steelers in terms of amassing sacks, but the ones they got more often than not were impactful.

The 47 sacks the Steelers collected in 2023 tied for 11th in the NFL, up from 14th in 2022 but a far cry from the No. 1 spot the Steelers occupied in that category for five consecutive seasons from 2017 through 2021.

But the 19 sacks collected by outside linebacker T.J. Watt made him the first NFL player to lead the league on three occasions (2020, 2021 and 2023), so from that standpoint the pass rush was historic.

And often times what the Steelers lacked in volume, relatively speaking, they made up for in splash while attacking opposing passers.

Following is a look back at five of the more memorable sacks in 2023:

1-Watt, Brock Purdy, Sept. 10, San Francisco:

The Steelers trailed the 49ers, 27-7, with 5:42 left in the third quarter when Watt breathed life back into the game and his team, if only temporarily.

On first-and-10 from the Steelers' 38-yard line Watt beat right offensive tackle Colton McKivitz wide and then zeroed in on quarterback Brock Purdy. Rather than assault Purdy, Watt attacked the ball with his right hand and separated it from Purdy' grasp, then fell on it at the Steelers' 46.

Suddenly, the Steelers had a chance to make it a two-score game before the start of the fourth quarter thanks to Watt's third sack, his second forced fumble and his first fumble recovery of the afternoon.

"Man, oh, man has he made an impact on this game when not much has gone right for the Steelers," FOX play-by-play announcer Joe Davis gushed.

It was a tough day for the Steelers but a harbinger of what was to come for Watt.

2-Alex Highsmith, Deshaun Watson, Sept, 18, Cleveland:

Highsmith, the other half of the Steelers' two-headed monster at outside linebacker, beat left offensive tackle Jedrick Wills to the outside on second-and-9 from the Browns' 20 with 7:06 left in regulation and the Browns leading, 22-19. Watson tried to step up in the pocket but Highsmith knocked the ball out of his hand. As it bounced forward Watt, who had been crashing the pocket from the opposite side, pivoted at 13, caught up to the ball at the 16, changed directions again and sprinted into the end zone.

Suddenly, the Steelers weren't trailing anymore.

"Alex just had a phenomenal rush," Watt recalled. "I just saw the ball come out and, thankfully, I didn't dive on it."

Thankfully, indeed.

3-Highsmith, Lamar Jackson, Oct. 8, Baltimore:

The Steelers had rallied from a 10-3 deficit and taken a 14-10 lead on a safety, a field goal, an interception and a 41-yard touchdown pass but there was work yet to be done to finish the job.

Highsmith and Watt got it done on first-and-10 from the Baltimore 44 with 1:12 left in regulation and the Ravens still in possession of two timeouts. Highsmith got wide on left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and made it to Jackson just as the Baltimore quarterback was cocking his arm to throw. Highsmith saw to it that Jackson's throwing motion proceeded with an empty hand and Watt scooped up the ball at the Baltimore 36.

Watt wasn't able to make it all the way to the end zone this time.

He settled for an 18-yard return and eventually presented the ball to Highsmith on the sideline.

"Highsmith knocks it free and the Pittsburgh Steelers have done it in every phase," CBS play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle assessed.

Added color analyst Charles Davis: "How fitting is it that the two edge rushers continue to work in tandem."

4-Watt, Jackson, Oct. 8, Baltimore:

This one was more symbolic than critical to the final result.

The possession that had begun at the Ravens' 18 following Highsmith's sack and Watt's fumble recovery and 18-yard return ended with a field goal for a 17-10 Steelers' advantage. But because the Steelers had unfortunately and unintentionally stopped the clock when they were penalized for an illegal formation, there were still 49 seconds remaining in regulation when they kicked the ball back to the Ravens.

There were 20 seconds left when Jackson called for the ball on fourth-and-7 from the Baltimore 28.

Watt's second sack of the game finally ended things, once and for all.

He punctuated the moment by ripping his helmet off in celebration, which earned Watt and flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Not that anyone seemed to care.

"T.J. Watt has just slammed the door shut on the Baltimore Ravens," Eagle announced.

An appropriate exclamation point.

5-Nick Herbig, Geno Smith, Dec. 31, at Seattle:

Herbig, a rookie outside linebacker from Wisconsin, played just two defensive snaps against the Seahawks.

One of them resulted in a sack, strip and fumble recovery on first-and-10 from the Seattle 25 with 7:07 left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers leading by seven, at 27-20.

The turnover turned into a field goal and a two-score lead, so it was worth celebrating.

But lacking experience in such situations, Herbig wound up following Watt's lead.

"That's my 'dawg,' man," Herbig gushed. "I kinda blacked out a little bit after the play. I just see T.J. looking at me, he's like 'Bro!' We just started talking, we're just doing our whole handshaking and all the boys came on the field, like 'M.G.' (outside linebacker Markus Golden), Alex, all my 'dawgs,' man.

"It was a great feeling. I can't really explain how that felt, to be honest with you."