The Pittsburgh Steelers have used 18 different players on the defensive side of the ball so far this season. Of those 18, only one was new to the team in 2020, either via free agency or trade or the draft, and that is rookie third-round outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, one of three defensive rookies on the roster (the others being Carlos Davis and James Pierre).
A small-school product, Highsmith hasn’t looked out of place so far, and the coaching staff has been consistently high on him and his preparedness since training camp. Averaging about 10 snaps per game on defense (and about 20 per game on special teams), he is already contributing in an area with two established starters.
Keith Butler, the team’s defensive coordinator, talked about the rookie’s contributions earlier today, calling him a good worker with a great and humble approach, also noting that his teammates have already taken a liking to him, meaning he has fit in well.
“He’s hard not to like because when he came in here, he realized he had to get better”, he told reporters, via a transcript supplied by the team’s media department. “The level that he was playing was different. He understands that, and he’s adapted well”.
“He’s still in the learning process. He’s got two good guys to learn from in Budand T.J.”, Butler continued. “They do a good job of coaching him. Both of them do. We need the extra guy because we have to rest those guys sometimes during the game, and we don’t need a big drop off when we do rest T.J. and Bud. He’s come along quite well as far as I’m concerned. He will get even better as the year goes along”.
Highsmith has actually played slightly more than has the team’s other backup outside linebacker, third-year Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, though the difference in their snap counts is so marginal as to be significant. The fact that it’s even close, though, is a reflection of how they view him.
On the season, so far, he has only managed two tackles, but he had a nice play in the team’s last game in which he set the edge and registered a tackle for loss. In the same game, however, he failed to set the edge at the goal line and was largely responsible for allowing what is so far the team’s only rushing touchdown on the season.
With Dupree almost sure to leave in free agency in 2021, the Steelers know that they need to get something out of Highsmith this season to get a feel for whether or not they can move on with some level of comfort in feeling as though he can be a starter.
Even assuming he could start next year, however, the depth would have to be replenished, with Adeniyi moving into the last season before he would be unrestricted. The only other edge is Jayrone Elliott, a veteran journeyman, who is on the practice squad.