One of the key players for the 2021 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers is Alex Highsmith, the second-year outside linebacker who is stepping into the starting lineup, into the void left by Bud Dupree, who signed with the Tennessee Titans during free agency.
While the subsequent addition of veteran three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Melvin Ingram took off some of the pressure of Highsmith being a smashing success right out of the gate, he certainly does not approach that as reduced pressure. If anything, it’s fueled him to ensure that he spends as much time on the field as possible.
And veteran teammate Cameron Heyward certainly sees that potential in him, and the growth that he has displayed over the course of the offseason. “You look at his play on the field and I just think he’s become more, not just a pass rusher, [but] he’s also able to drop”, he told reporters on Thursday.
“He understands where he needs to be, and he’s able to disguise a little bit more this year”, he added in detailing how his growing understanding will affect the defense. “Sometimes as a rookie, you just show ‘em what you got, and line ‘em up. I think he’s able to understand what we’re trying to do here, so different looks, and I feel like he feels more comfortable doing that”.
A third-round draft pick out of Charlotte last year, Highsmith’s rookie season was actually quite impressive when you consider all the variables. Not only was he a small-school product, he didn’t even spend much of his college career with the opportunity to play on the edge.
While he was in the position to step in and be the third guy right away here, the reality is that it was a position he had to earn under uncertain circumstances, as the pandemic robbed teams of a proper offseason, and the preseason was wiped away entirely, so he had to grow in games that mattered.
Highsmith would ultimately start the final five games of the regular season for the Steelers last year after Dupree suffered a torn ACL. While he only recorded one (of his season-long two) sack during that stretch, he showed a lot of progress from the beginning of that period to the end, in terms of how he sets up plays, sets the edge against the run, and diagnoses the offense.
Still, he knows as well as anybody that there is a lot left for him to prove. Sacks are the most tangible measure of success for an outside linebacker, and he understands that he has to get some of them, but he also wants to be a complete player who will play the run and drop into coverage at a high level, while also being an asset to his teammates.