The Pittsburgh Steelers spent a third-round draft pick a year ago on a small school edge rusher in Alex Highsmith and with his 2020 rookie season now behind him, it looks like the team made a great choice and now have a player that can man the side opposite outside linebacker T.J. Watt for the next three years at a minimum. On the heels of his productive rookie season, which included him registering 48 tackles, including 30 solo stops, two sacks, an interception and a pass defense, Highsmith reflected on 2020 as a whole during an interview with Teresa Varley of steelers.com.
“I felt like I grew throughout the season,” Highsmith told Varley. “I am far from where I want to be. No matter how well I played, or how bad I played, I can always be better. I always want to have that mindset that I had a bad game whether I had three sacks or no sacks. I want to have the mindset to get better. The more I played, especially on the defensive side of the ball, the slower the game got. That is how it’s always been for me. Same thing with college. The more reps I played the slower it got. I am excited to keep growing and take that leap from year one to year two.”
While Highsmith ultimately ended his 2020 rookie season as the reams staring right outside linebacker following the December season-ending knee injury suffered by veteran Bud Dupree, he had to pay his dues along the way and that process started with him being used quite a bit on special teams and just a little on defense right out of the chute in the Steelers regular season opener against the New York Giants. Highsmith recently reflected on what all he was told would be expected of him as a rookie during his interview with Varley.
“Before the season started, Coach (Mike) Tomlin called me and said here is what we expect of you,” recalled Highsmith to Varley. “I knew I was going to be out there that first game on the field, playing special teams and backing up T.J. and Bud. It was awesome. It was a surreal feeling to run out there, and even though there were no fans, to play on Monday Night Football for my first game was awesome.”
While Highsmith first NFL sack didn’t happen until Week 9 in the team’s road game against the Dallas Cowboys, you can tell that he’ll never forget every aspect of that play.
“It was awesome getting the first sack,” said Highsmith. “There is no greater feeling in football than getting a sack in my opinion. You know you have beaten the one man in front of you. That is what it is, beating another man one-on-one and getting the sack. It’s a great feeling. It’s hard to describe. It’s cool, but it can’t last long. You have to move on to the next play when it happens. It’s a short-lived feeling, but it’s good. I would have never thought I would get my fist pick before my first sack. I don’t think I have had an interception since Pop Warner football. It’s been a long, long time since I have had an interception.”
That interception of Highsmith’s, by the way, came a week earlier than his first sack against the Baltimore Ravens at that. That play showed that Highsmith can learn and adjust on the fly and in-game as he made that interception ads a result of recognizing a similar play the Ravens had earlier in the contest. Him learning from his previous mistake allowed him to drop into coverage thanks to his recognition and resulted in him quite easily picking off a pass from Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Highsmith told Varley that one of his main takeaways from his rookie 2020 season is that he now knows he belongs in the NFL and that he can play with the best of the best despite being a small school product. He reflected to Varley on things that Will Healy, his head coach at UNC-Charlotte, told him throughout the pre-draft process.
Highsmith’s task at this point is to build upon the foundation that he laid during his rookie season that included him playing 309 total defensive snaps. Assuming Dupree leaves via free agency this offseason, Highsmith should be the starter and that means he’ll be expected to come close to double-digit sacks in 2021.
“That is what I am working on this year, just to get my body right by working on my craft and the little things it’s going to take to not just get hits, but get sacks, because sacks are what matters most,” Highsmith said. “It’s going to take the work to get them next year.”