Good drafting last season left the Pittsburgh Steelers secure on the edge for defense. T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree held down the starting spots on either side, and then third-round rookie Alex Highsmith provided a stable backup option should an injury occur to either starter. Such an injury did occur, to Dupree in Week 12. Highsmith stepped in, produced well, and kept the defense playing well without missing a step.
That is not the case for Pittsburgh this season. Highsmith steps in to replace Dupree, lost in free agency. Opposite him is Watt, playing for an extension to become the highest-paid defender in football. But behind them? No third-round rookie and set top option. Instead, a couple names vying for the biggest (or first) role they’ve had in their NFL careers.
Speaking with media at minicamp Tuesday, defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked about the lack of a top backup like the Steelers had in Highsmith last season. The depth chart isn’t set yet, but there was a name Butler offered up as someone he thought could replace Highsmith as the player behind Watt and Highsmith in 2021.
“We always wanted to have a third guy last year. That third guy was Alex. We lost Bud, Bud was a big part of our defense, was a good player we drafted first round. We hated to lose him, but that’s just the nature of this game sometimes when it comes to money and a salary cap and all that stuff,” Butler said. But we’re looking for a third guy right now, who’s going to step up. And hopefully Cassius can give us a little help there, too. So we’ll see. We drafted the one guy, and we think he’s going to be alright.”
More on the player drafted this offseason later. The first name Butler mentioned is someone already familiar to the team: Cassius Marsh. A veteran entering his eighth NFL season, Marsh has had a journeyman career that’s seen him play for several franchises, but never stick with one as a top option. After three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Marsh bounced around New England, San Francisco, and Arizona the next three.
Last year, he began with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was cut mid-season, and added to the Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad. The Steelers poached him a few weeks later, and re-signed him to a one-year contract this offseason. Marsh did have 5.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits as a top backup in San Francisco in 2018. It’s that kind of production as a backup Butler hopes he can bring to Pittsburgh while winning the competition for the spot behind Watt and Highsmith.
“We’ll see about that third guy. Cassius we think can help us there. We’ll see as we go along, hopefully we can stay healthy at that position and do some of the stuff that we did last year and do it better, if we can,” Butler said.
The other top contender for that spot is the draft pick Butler alluded to, Quincy Roche out of Miami (FL). A sixth-round pick, Roche was one of the most productive rushers in college playing at Temple before transferring to Miami for his final season. Roche has earned several mentions as one of the best value picks of the 2021 NFL Draft.