Browns' Myles Garrett playing at elite level going into Steelers rematch

BEREA, Ohio -- Myles Garrett was asked recently whether he'd ever played better than right now. The question provided Garrett with the opportunity for a high school humble brag even Uncle Rico could appreciate.

"I had nine sacks in one game," Garrett replied, "if that counts."

Not since single-handedly wrecking Weatherford High seven years ago (video evidence of that night, which amazingly also included two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a punt block, lives on here) has the Cleveland Browns pass-rusher so impacted the opposition.

Carrying a Cleveland defense ravaged by injuries, the former No. 1 overall pick has helped power the Browns (4-1) to their best start in 26 years. Last Sunday, on the heels of three consecutive games with a strip sack, Garrett pressured Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers into an intentional grounding from the end zone, handing the Browns a critical safety in the fourth quarter of a 32-23 victory.

"Flamethrower," Cleveland defensive coordinator Joe Woods calls him. "If we can get him one-on-one, I feel like he has a chance to win every time. Just what he has done over the last few games, it speaks to the level that he's playing at right now."

Despite the level Garrett is playing at, perhaps the most challenging setting of his playing career awaits him Sunday in Pittsburgh. A stage that also figures to provide him with the chance to firmly position himself at the top of any NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversation.

For the first time since the helmet shot heard 'round the world, Garrett faces the Steelers in a critical AFC North showdown.

The last time he saw the Steelers, Garrett's season abruptly ended. In the closing seconds of Cleveland's 21-7 victory last Nov. 14, Garrett ripped the helmet off Mason Rudolph and slugged the Steelers quarterback in the head with it. The incident resulted in a season-ending suspension, which cost Garrett six games, a fine of $45,623 and roughly $1.2 million in lost salary.

Privately in his appeal, and later publicly on "Outside the Lines", he accused Rudolph of calling him "the N-word," which Garrett charged ultimately incited the helmet swing. Multiple times, both Rudolph and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin have vehemently denied the accusation.

Tuesday, Tomlin did his best to downplay the past, saying his team was "not looking for that low-hanging fruit or that reality TV storyline." But whether the Steelers -- or Garrett -- will be looking for it, that storyline will almost surely dominate the backdrop Sunday, especially now that almost 6,000 fans will be allowed inside Heinz Field. Garrett's teammates are acutely aware.

"This one's for him," Browns running back Kareem Hunt said of Garrett, whose weekly Zoom call isn't until Fridays. "This one's for Cleveland. This one's for a lot of things. … We have Myles' back no matter what."

The same goes for the franchise, which emphatically stood by him after the season-ending suspension. This offseason, the new front office in Cleveland handed Garrett a $100 million extension, which at the time was a record for a non-quarterback.

So far, Garrett has put the helmet swing in the past while playing up to that contract, and then some.

Garrett ranks either first or second in the NFL in sacks (six), forced fumbles (three) and fumble recoveries (two). He's also seventh in pass rush win rate and No. 1 in initial pressures by a defender.

"I can promise you on Wednesday morning in the opponents' meeting rooms, they have a big circle on No. 95 and they may be referring to him as a game-wrecker," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "Because he has that ability to wreck the game from their perspective."

The Steelers are sure to have 95 circled this week.

Because of the helmet swing. But especially because of the game-wrecking ability opponents from high school to the pros can attest.