The AFC North was up for grabs on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers traveled south to take on the 5-1 Baltimore Ravens, whose only defeat on the season up to that point had come to the reigning Super Bowl champions, the 6-1 Kansas City Chiefs.
After an early pick six, it didn’t look as though they realized that. The first half was very flat on both sides of the ball, with the offensive passing game and the run defense in particularly looking awful. The Ravens rushed for 179 yards in the first half alone.
There were some surprising names bubbling up for attention, though, and that included rookie outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, a third-round draft pick who had seemingly taken over the number three role behind starters T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.
This game confirmed that, as the defense introduced a new sub-package featuring all three named outside linebackers on the field together, with strong safety Terrell Edmunds coming off the field. It was a way to add more pressure and a bigger defense, and a way to get an athletic young defender on the field more.
And Highsmith was able to make his playing time count, highlighted by his first-career interception, jumping in front of a short Lamar Jackson pass, the second interception that he had thrown in the game, and the second time they were able to turn it into points, this ending with an Eric Ebron touchdown a short time later.
He wasn’t all over the place on the stat sheet, but the rookie looked good on tape, and active. He also helped to force a key incompletion on second down on a later second-half drive, just after the Steelers took the lead back, which led to a third-down stop and the Ravens being forced to punt, which had not happened often.
In all, he nearly doubled his previous career-high in defensive snaps Sunday with 25, having played a maximum of 13 snaps before, and he finished the game with two tackles and the interception, officially, but his impact was broader than that.
Considering everything, from the nature of this offseason to the fact that he was the product of a small school, the reality of his playing time and status on this team by the middle of his rookie season is commendable. Highsmith is showing week by week that he belongs.
Now, we still need to see more and more of an impact, and of course that is hard to do when you are only playing at most a dozen snaps per week. Perhaps if he can get a bit more playing time through this sub-package wrinkle, he can get himself a couple of sacks.