Pittsburgh lost a lot to free agency this offseason — five starters in total. All, to some degree, were expected losses, but all still hurt. None hurt more so than Bud Dupree, who signed a five-year deal with the Tennessee Titans. Over the last two seasons, Dupree had formed one of the NFL’s best edge rush duos with T.J. Watt, and leaves Pittsburgh promoting a new starter to the lineup and hoping he will gel as well with Watt as Dupree did.
The Steelers actually got a preview of that new partnership last season, when an injury to Dupree sidelined him for the final five games of 2021. And the results shown from Watt and rookie Alex Highsmith created plenty of optimism for the team in a limited sample size. Watt and Highsmith are Pittsburgh’s full-time combination from Week 1 this year, and Watt was asked about getting a full-time chance to start with Highsmith this season.
“I’m really looking forward to working with him and continuing to work,” Watt said during a Tuesday minicamp media session. “The last five or six games that we had together last year gave us a real good look at how we gel together and the things that we can improve on collectively.”
Pittsburgh drafted Highsmith out of Charlotte in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft as a future replacement for Dupree, who was a near-lock to leave as a free agent given the big contract he had earned and the Steelers’ lack of cap space.
In the four games he and Watt started together following Dupree’s injury, Highsmith produced four quarterback hits and 19 tackles. Across from him, Watt finished with four sacks, two forced fumbles, eight QB hits, six tackles for a loss, and 15 total tackles. Highsmith didn’t match the per-game averages of Dupree (eight sacks, two forced fumbles, 15 QB hits, 31 tackles, eight for a loss) that the veteran had over his 11 games with Watt in 2020. He did show enough production, though, to easily imagine he could replace Dupree in the long-term.
Held this week, minicamp and later training camp is a crucial time for Watt and Highsmith to build off of last season’s small sample size, and to work with the rest of their defensive front to have the unit ready to fire on Week 1.
“That starts with camp here and just getting the communication between him and I and the whole front five,” Watt said. “I’m excited to get to work with these guys again.”