I don’t think anybody expected the Pittsburgh Steelers to be starting two rookies by the end of the 2020 season, but here we are. While second-round wide receiver Chase Claypool always had a good chance of playing, there wasn’t a clear path for anybody else. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree’s injury, however, opened the door for Alex Highsmith, their third-round pick.
He started his first game of his career on Monday against the Washington Football Team and was credited with five tackles, including two defensive stops, while also able to generate some pressure in the pass rush, though without recording a sack.
He is one of several linebackers who will be starting in place of somebody else on Sunday, as Devin Bush has long been out. His replacement, Robert Spillane, is currently sidelined, and Vince Williams is on the Covid-19 List. Avery Williamson will start at one spot. The other spot is not yet determined, but they may simply start in the dime, with Cameron Sutton or Justin Layne on the field—depending on whether or not Joe Haden plays, which is another situation all of its own.
So far, for the most part, the Steelers have gotten what they’ve needed out of their backups, as their 11-1 record shows, though certainly not without flaws. They have gotten two starts apiece along the offensive line from Kevin Dotson and J.C. Hassenauer, for example. They even got a clean game out of Matthew Wright filling in for kicker Chris Boswell the last time out.
“I think it’s just everyone being prepared”, Highsmith said about why they have been able to plug guys in without losing too much in the process. “That’s what makes us such a great team, such a great defense, is just because everyone works so hard, and we’re all just so dedicated to the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl”.
“I feel like the next man up mentality is something that’s always been here”, he added. “Just guys being prepared is the reason that guys have been able to come in and fill in. I just know that I’m filling in right now, and I just want to be my best self and be as productive as I can be to help this team win”.
The next man up mentality is an important one for any team to have, because it is inevitable that you will need backups to play like starters at some point during the year. How many next men, however, can you have on the field before there is a clear drop in quality and in what you are able to do as a team—at what point does it cost you a game?