When T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were the starting pair of edge rushers for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the duo helped each other tremendously. Both were playing at a Pro Bowl level and created pressure on every snap, and consequently prevented defenses from constantly focusing increased blocking on one or the other.
Then Dupree suffered a season-ending injury Week 12. His replacement, third-round pick Alex Highsmith, played well in his absence and earned the starting job for this coming season. Offenses weren’t as threatened, though, and began to send extra blockers and double teams at Watt. Both players are preparing for more of that in 2021, though one of them thinks it might not be long before the status quo that existed with a Watt/Dupree pairing returns with Watt/Highsmith.
“Alex is a really talented pass rusher himself, too. So I mean, if guys want to slide my way and chip and everything, he’s going to have one-on-ones on the backside, and I’m very confident he’s going to win the majority of those battles, too. I don’t think there’s a way you can totally protect both of us at one time,” Watt said during a minicamp media session Tuesday morning.
On one edge, Watt is unblockable. An All-Pro each of the last two seasons, Watt has 13 or more sacks the last three years, led the NFL in sacks and tackles for loss in 2020, and forced six or more fumbles in both 2018 and 2019. His status as one of the best pass rushers in football is ironclad.
Opposite him, it is on Highsmith to continue ascending toward the status that Dupree held. One of a very productive pass rusher who complemented Watt’s talents, and provided enough of a threat off the edge that teams couldn’t leave him in a one-on-one situation often.
Highsmith didn’t get a sack during his time starting with Watt following Dupree’s injury, but did register four quarterback hits, substantially more hurries, and drew enough pressure away that Watt was able to stay at the productive pace he had starting with Dupree.
Watt is very high on the team’s new full-time starter on the edge, and is prepared to fight through some extra blocking for the time being as Highsmith works to improve and draw some of that extra attention himself.
“I have to deal with what’s in front of me. And like I said earlier, I think Alex is a more than capable pass rusher, more than capable defender for us in the run and the pass, dropping back in coverage. That respect is going to come, but that respect comes with time, as well, and doing it on a consistent basis,” Watt said. “I’m just controlling what I can control and trusting that Alex, if I do get chipped or double-teamed, Alex can handle his own on the backside, and I also believe that he can handle any chips that come his way too because I do think that respect will start coming for him.”