One year after turning in a strong first season as a starter in the black and gold, Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith is poised for a breakout season opposite reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt.
After taking over for Bud Dupree last season as the starter opposite Watt, Highsmith emerged as a strong run defender overall and quietly developed into a consistent pass rusher, turning in 74 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, 15 quarterback hits, and one forced fumble in 16 games overall.
Those numbers might not be eye-popping overall, but they were part of a strong first season as a starter for the former third-round pick out of Charlotte. Now, Highsmith has the experience under his belt (more than 1,200 career snaps) and is aiming for more in 2022, leading to Bleacher Report’s Alex Ballentine naming him the Steelers’ 2022 breakout player.
“Few franchises have prided themselves in player development like the Pittsburgh Steelers. This year’s free-agent spending spree aside, they’ve focused on drafting well and making the most of their in-house talent. Bud Dupree was a prime example of that, and Alex Highsmith is trending toward becoming the next in the line of good pass-rushers to wear the black and yellow,” Ballentine writes. “It took Dupree five seasons in Pittsburgh before he broke through and registered 11.5 sacks while playing 90 percent of the defensive snaps. Highsmith is actually on a faster track. He saw his role grow in his second season, playing 76 percent of the defensive snaps and registering six sacks along with 15 quarterback hits.
“Playing across from T.J. Watt is both a blessing and a curse for Highsmith. He has the advantage of opposing teams scheming against his teammate but also doesn’t get as much credit as he should,” Ballentine added. “He and Watt were tied for the seventh-best run-stop win rate last season, per ESPN Analytics. Expect him to get to the quarterback more than 10 times in 2022.”
Highsmith certainly didn’t look out of place or overwhelmed at all in 2021 opposite Watt, handling his one-on-one matchups rather well overall, especially against the run, where he was in the backfield a lot making plays behind the line of scrimmage for the Steelers, as evidenced by his seventh-best run-stop win rate, tied with Watt as Ballentine points out.
Though he did have some hiccups along the way against the run, overall Highsmith showed that the arrow is pointing up for the young pass rusher in Pittsburgh. With another year of development and another full offseason to work on his craft, don’t be surprised if Highsmith takes a massive leap forward in 2022, giving the Steelers another terrific outside linebacker duo that gets after the quarterback in a hurry once again.