There may be nothing more valuable to an edge defender than his pass-rush repertoire. You can have all the physical ability in the world, but if you don’t know how to employ your natural gifts, then an accomplished NFL offensive lineman is going to bat you into the ground with regularity.
Even though he came out of a small school and didn’t even spend most of his time in college playing on the edge, Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 third-round pick Alex Highsmith actually came into the league with what I might even say was some advanced understanding of pass-rush moves and how to set them up over the course of a game. That’s one of the things he’s focusing on building on as he enters his second season, and a full-time job, something he discusses with T.J. Watt.
“We’ve talked about that some. Just trying to really watch film from the year prior”, he told reporters after one OTA practice earlier this week. “That’s something that I’ve done a lot, and talking to other pass rushers as well. Just looking at the year prior and seeing things that I could get better”.
Watt underwent a similar transition after his rookie season in 2017, and like Highsmith, also didn’t have a lot of experience on the edge before being drafted, though in his case, he was actually a convert from the offensive side of the ball. Having an elite defender as a resource who grew his game the way he has is exceedingly valuable.
There’s another thing he’s hoping will rub off on him from Watt, and from his former teammate, Bud Dupree. Both of them had absolutely elite get-off, the term applied to a player’s ability to react immediately at the snap of the ball and perform their task, which for a pass rusher, would be to rush the passer, typically trying to get around the edge of an offensive tackle.
“I’ve got to get better at my get-off. That’s something I can always get better at”, Highsmith said. “If you don’t beat the lineman to the spot, a lot of times, that move’s not going to work, so if I can get my get-off a whole lot better, it’s easier to execute my move, and just accelerate to the quarterback”.
Even though he only finished his rookie season with two sacks, despite playing over 400 snaps and starting five games, the tape tells a better story about this ability to get after the quarterback that promises a more representative numerical output in 2021.
According to Pro Football Focus, Highsmith ranked 20th in the league in pass-rush win rate, or the percentage of occasions on which he was able to defeat his intended blocker, whether or not the play resulted in a pressure. They credit him with 21 total pressures on the season, with two sacks, four hits, and 15 hurries.
Building up his pass-rush repertoire and improving his get-off—in addition to adding some muscle—will go a long way toward building him into a strong starter and complement to Watt, which is exactly what the defense needs out of him.