Steelers’ Alex Highsmith Named AFC North Player Set For 2021 Breakout

The off-season hype train for second-year Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith continues to roll down the tracks at a high rate of speed.

On Thursday, CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora added to the off-season hype for the second-year pass rusher poised to take over for Bud Dupree in 2021, labeling Highsmith as the one AFC North player set for a 2021 breakout. 

Highsmith was previously tabbed as one of the under-the-radar breakout candidates for 2021 by CBS Sports’ Tyler Sullivan, so it’s clear CBS Sports is on the same page regarding Highsmith throughout the company.

Taking over for the injured Dupree late in the 2020 season, Highsmith flashed some brilliance as a pass rusher, helping the Steelers come back in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts, and also showed the ability to drop into coverage and hold up against the run.

For La Canfora, Highsmith is poised to become the next impact pass rusher in Steelers’ history. High praise for a guy that played just 437 defensive snaps last season.

“Is he going to completely replace Bud Dupree from a production standpoint? Maybe not. Dupree blossomed into an elite pass rusher the past two season. But with the star power on this defense and with T.J. Watt on the other side, and with this staff and franchise that seems to always cultivate impact linebackers – and with a full and normal offseason and preseason – can he take major leaps forward?” La Canfora writes. “I wouldn’t bet against it. With guys like Robert Spillane and Devin Bush having to come back from serious injuries and Vince Williams cut and then re-signed on the cheap, the stage is set for Highsmith to make waves this summer and make plays this season. I believe he can be the next real impact edge rusher in Pittsburgh, continuing the team’s distinguished lineage.”

T.J. Watt will garner a ton of attention on the other side, so Highsmith should find himself in one-on-one situations often in 2021. Winning consistently in those matchups will go a long way in not only Highsmith’s leap forward, but the Steelers’ defensive outlook in 2021 overall. That’s something Highsmith said he’s aware of dating back to March after the Steelers lost Dupree to the Tennessee Titans in free agency.

“I think it’s good to have two guys, you know, that can really get after the quarterback on both sides,” Highsmith said in March. “You know, because if you don’t, then one guy – the offensive line is just going to slide one way to the guy who’s doing better. And so, I think that just coming in this year, I gotta be able to produce like T.J. does so that the offensive line doesn’t scheme against him. So, I just got to come in and just be the best that I can be to even out that rush, to leave off where Bud was doing.”

As Dave Bryan previously wrote regarding Highsmith as an under-the-radar breakout candidate, there’s a good chance that’s happens simply based on the advanced analytics surrounding Highsmith’s rookie-season production. In 2020, Highsmith made a tackle on nearly 10% of his snaps (9.9% tackle rate), which was the second-highest rate among edge defenders in 2020 (min. 400 snaps), according to Next Gen Stats. Highsmith’s speed in the first three yards traveled was also pretty good as he ranked in the top 10 percent in 2020; and his hips stayed facing the quarterback even after contact at a rate in the top 15 percent, per the report from Next Gen Stats.

Should Highsmith fulfill the expectations of a breakout 2021, the Steelers’ defense will once again have a formidable pass rush duo for opposing offenses to deal with.

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