OLB Alex Highsmith finds himself as the entrenched starter opposite reigning DPOY T.J. Watt heading into the 2022 season. After facing some controversy as to whether he would be the clear starter in 2021 after the team signed Melvin Ingram prior to the start of the season, Highsmith won the role in training camp, posting a productive 2021 campaign after seeing a large increase in playing time. After playing as more of a rotational player as a rookie in 2020, Highsmith played 851 defensive snaps in 16 starts and recorded 74 total stops (46 solo), 15 TFLs, 15 QB hits, six sacks, and one forced fumble according to Pro Football Reference.
Going into 2022, Highsmith knows that he must again take his play to another level as a pass rusher to be a better complement to Watt on the other side of the line of scrimmage
“I definitely feel I can be more productive sacks-wise,” Highsmith answered when asked by Tim Benz of Trib Live if he can take a step forward heading into his third season during mandatory minicamp. “This year hitting double digits is a main goal of mine. At least 10 or 12; somewhere around there. Whether that’s pass-rushing or getting more physical in the run game. No matter how much of a jump I make, I feel like I can always get better.”
Highsmith’s impact on the football field took a notable leap with an increased role last season, showing off a variety of pass rush moves, including a deadly inside spin move reminiscent to that of all-time pass rushing great Dwight Freeney. Highsmith also notably added size and strength to his frame from his rookie season, being stronger at setting the edge against the run than he was as a rookie and flashing instances of winning with power both as a pass rusher and run defender.
Alex Highsmith rushing the passer in the HoF game:
– 15 pass rush snaps
– 3 pressures
– 1 sack
Year 2 breakout incoming?
— PFF (@PFF) August 6, 2021
Still, if Highsmith is to capitalize on the opportunity he has at his disposal heading into Year Three, his second as the projected starter, he must become more consistent as a run defender as well as better at finishing at the QB and getting him on the ground.
Small positives from Sunday's performance. Nice rushes from Chris Wormley and Alex Highsmith. Wormley with the club/swim and Highsmith has improved his power/bull. Good leverage to get under the LT and drive him back. Pressure saved a TD. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/lfHtvB9ZRs
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 11, 2021
“I looked at my film from last year and there are a bunch of plays where I beat a guy, but I really didn’t finish the rush. That’s what I’ve been working on with T.J. [Watt],” Highsmith continued. “Just working on those things at the top of the rush. That’s where it matters most. I can beat the guy, but the quarterback can step up and I run around him. It’s about bending the corner more and getting the guy’s hands off me so I can finish that rush.”
When going back and watching Highsmith’s eight sacks from his first two seasons in the NFL, most of them come from winning inside, either on an inside swim crossing the tackle’s face or on his patented inside spin move. He can win around the corner as a pass rusher, but he needs to improve his hand usage at the top of his rep if he can’t turn the corner and bend like he references in the quote above. Whether it be balance issues on the bend or taking a good angle around the tackle, winning consistently around the corner will be Highsmith’s key to sending his sack totals to double-digits this season.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) September 15, 2021
Through two NFL seasons, Highsmith has 20 TFLs and eight sacks in 32 games played (21 starts). For comparison’s sake, former Steelers OLB and current Tennessee Titan Bud Dupree had ten TFLs and 8.5 sacks in his first two seasons in the league, starting nine of 23 regular season appearances. Dupree dealt with inconsistent play and injury to start his NFL career, but really came into his own as a pass rusher in his fifth season with Pittsburgh, leading to them franchise-tagging him for the 2020 season.
Given that Pittsburgh only invested a third-round selection in Highsmith instead of investing first-round capital like they did in Dupree, the return on investment has been great so far for the Steelers regarding how Highsmith has come into his own as a capable starter opposite T.J. Watt. Still, there still is a fair amount of meat left on the one for Highsmith to develop as a pass rusher, and he will have his chance in 2022 to prove that not only is he an ideal running mate opposite of Watt, but that he should be considered for a heavy contract extension in 2023 to keep the duo in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.
Alex Highsmith sells speed upfield causing the blocker to turn his shoulders & create space inside. @highsmith34 executes a well-timed spin move just as the blocker punches. Have a pre-snap pass rush plan! #passrush #steelers pic.twitter.com/iQ1vHJgwz6
— DLineVids (@dlinevids1) November 22, 2021