If there is one upside to the timetable for T.J. Watt’s extension, which has kept him from being a participant in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ team practices, it has been that it has given the team ample opportunity to get their other top outside linebackers time with the first-team defense.
Second-year Alex Highsmith was projected to enter the starting lineup as soon as the Steelers knew that they would not be bringing back Bud Dupree, whenever that was exactly. But they also signed veteran, former Pro Bowl pass rusher Melvin Ingram on the eve of training camp, a boon to the depth at the position but which somewhat clouded roles. Still, the two of them have embraced their partnership.
“Ever since Melvin came in, he’s been willing to teach me a lot”, Highsmith told reporters following last night’s game. “I’ve seen him make plays and seen the type of guy he is, you know, it’s been awesome to be able to play with him so far this preseason. We’re just both trying to push each other to be the best we can be. All of us on the team, all of us d-linemen, just defense and overall, as a whole team, we’re trying to push each other to be the best we can be, but it’s been great working with him”.
It has been encouraging to see how effective the Steelers’ pass rush has been during the first three games of the preseason when you factor in the absences not just of Watt, but also of Stephon Tuitt, and until last night, Cameron Heyward. Highsmith and Ingram have both been volume pressure contributors, while those further down the depth chart like Quincy Roche and Jamir Jones have brought the heat as well.
It remains to be seen exactly how snaps will be divided between Highsmith and Ingram or if Highsmith will simply start while Ingram spells both Highsmith and Watt over the course of games to keep everybody fresh.
But the long and short of it is that the addition of Ingram did a lot to secure the quality of depth at arguably the most important defensive position on the field. We are all high on Highsmith, yet he is far from an established player, and if he were to be sidelined with an injury, he probably would have gotten the Kevin Dotson treatment.
But he’s seemingly done everything the right way since entering the league via the third round a year ago, and looks poised to have a season that clearly establishes himself as a starter. Of course, the work must come first, but what we’ve seen of his efforts indicate that he will achieve his objective.