While it’s a great thing to have access to an elite pass rusher, it is perhaps equally important to have some semblance of balance on both sides. Similar to having one great wide receiver that you can invest resources in to remove from the game, if your second primary rusher is of minimal threat that you can get away with just chipping him while double- and triple-teaming the elite rusher, your pass rush will be sparse.
That’s what Alex Highsmith is looking to provide for T.J. Watt and the Pittsburgh Steelers this season as he enters the starting lineup on a full-time basis. A rookie a year ago, he started the final five games of the regular season after Bud Dupree tore his ACL. With Dupree now in Tennessee, it’s on him to make sure teams can’t slide their protection heavily to Watt, which he admitted he saw happen.
“I feel like they were, and I feel like most of us were getting chipped. We were watching clips of Washington, some highlights from the Colts game yesterday, we were both getting chips from the tight ends, from the running backs”, he said yesterday in speaking to reporters after the latest OTA session.
“I feel like I’ve got to come in and earn the respect that he has”, Highsmith said of Watt, “because he’s one of the most respected guys in the game. He is one of the best at what he does, so I’ve got to come in and earn that respect as well to be able to even it out a little bit”.
Watt led the NFL in sacks, quarterback hits, and tackles for loss last season, earning first-team All-Pro honors for the second year in a row, but finished second to Aaron Donald for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, Donald’s third time winning it (and Watt’s second in a row as a finalist).
Over the past three seasons, Watt has picked up 42.5 sacks in 47 games, along with 98 hits, 176 tackles, 49 tackles for loss, three interceptions, 18 passes defensed, 16 forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. You can put his numbers up against anybody else in that span and you’ll have no reason to complain.
Needless to say Highsmith has a way to go before he is at that level, or can even reach that stratosphere. But the Steelers don’t need him to be another Watt. Nobody has two Watts, and they wouldn’t be able to afford to pay them if they did.
And he had a solid rookie season in his own right, recording 48 tackles with five for loss and an interception. He only had two sacks, but also six hits among 12 pressures, according to Pro Football Reference, and there is ample reason to expect him to only continue to get better.