Now that the 2020 regular season has begun, following a second consecutive season in which they failed to even reach the playoffs, it’s time to take stock of where the Pittsburgh Steelers stand. Specifically where Steelers players stand individually based on what we are seeing over the course of the season as it plays out. Who is making plays? Who is missing them? Who is losing snaps? Who is struggling to stay on the field?
A stock evaluation can take a couple of different approaches and I’ll try to make clear my reasonings. In some cases it will be based on more long-term trends. In other instances it will be a direct response to something that just happened. So we can see a player more than once over the course of the season as we move forward.
Player: OLB Alex Highsmith
Stock Value: Up
Reasoning: Alex Highsmith has evidently solidified himself as the team’s third outside linebacker in the rotation, and the Steelers have also begun using him in a new 3-5-3 sub-package, though how much that is used from here on out remains to be seen.
Fresh off of an honorary placement on Pro Football Focus’ mid-season all-rookie team is Alex Highsmith, rising up in the ranks and getting a mention in out stock watch column. The third-round pick has seen somewhat extended playing time over the course of the past two weeks, and has made the most of it.
Last week, for example, he picked up his first takeaway, recording an interception of Lamar Jackson against the Baltimore Ravens. In that game, he logged a couple dozen snaps, the majority of which came out of a new 3-5-3 package.
He didn’t see as much time this week against the Dallas Cowboys, ultimately about a dozen snaps, but he managed to notch another first along the way, getting his first quarterback sack—in the first start of Garrett Gilbert’s career, though it wasn’t the first time he’d ever been sacked. The takedown came at the end of a drive on third down and forced Dallas to settle for a field goal.
It’s not just splash plays that count, of course. He needs to be knowing what he is doing and performing for every snap that he is out there. I’m not going to go so far as to say that he is playing error-free football, but the more snaps he sees, the more comfortable he appears to be in his assignments, as he works on setting the edge in run defense in particular.
It’s unclear what’s next. The 3-5-3 package came about largely due to injuries, but with Tyson Alualu back and possibly Mike Hilton too, we might not see it anymore. Still, we may see the coaches more willing to pull T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree out of the game for a stretch or two more often in order to give them rest, trusting that Highsmith can play at a sufficient level while he is in there.