While it might not automatically win you a Super Bowl, being the healthiest team in the NFL often gives you a pretty good shot at it—as long as you have a decently talented roster. Every season is a war of attrition, with injuries, significant or otherwise, whittling down every roster over the fall and winter months deep into January.
The rosters you take into September often look much different by the time you get deep into December, and then into the postseason. Already, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost three players this year who were opening-day starters, beginning with right tackle Zach Banner in the opener, inside linebacker Devin Bush several weeks later, and most recently, outside linebacker Bud Dupree.
So far, the team has been fortunate enough to have enough pieces to be able to pick up the slack. Chukwuma Okorafor has started the past 10 games more than ably at right tackle. They are piecing together the inside linebacker puzzle, primarily with Robert Spillane, as Avery Williamson gets more playing time, and the dime defense supplements.
Next up is Alex Highsmith, the rookie third-round outside linebacker. While he has played 139 defensive snaps already this season, he has only played 20 or more snaps once so far, so the role he will be asked to play going forward is a substantial increase. But his teammates, such as T.J. Watt, believe he is the man for the job.
“He’s always come to work ready to grow and get better, and that’s the thing with him. He’s always asking the right questions”, he told reporters earlier today. “I’m not able to see guys prepare this year because we’re all socially distanced and watching film from our homes, but I know he’s prepared. I feel very confident in his ability to step in”.
Through his playing time to date—including special teams—Highsmith has recorded 20 tackles, including three for a loss. He also has an interception, as well as a sack. He has mostly come in rotationally behind either Watt or Dupree, able to play on both sides, but has also seen time in a five-linebacker package.
Highsmith is just the latest edge defender to see a significant amount of playing time as a rookie. Watt was a full-time starter himself as a rookie in 2017. Dupree worked rotationally most of his rookie season, sometimes playing the majority of the snaps in a game, before moving into the starting lineup late in the year. Jarvis Jones in 2013 was also in and out of the lineup.