Film Room: Alex Highsmith Poised For Big Leap In 2022

As we transition to the offseason with OTAs and mandatory minicamp behind us, I have taken some film room requests on certain players and aspects yinz want highlighted about their play from last season. For this film room breakdown, I will hold OLB Alex Highsmith under the microscope and put forward an argument that he will continue to build off the progress made from his rookie season to last season and become the ideal running mate opposite T.J. Watt to form one of the best EDGE tandems in the league.

The Film

When breaking down Highsmith’s 2021 season, you notice a big step up in his play from his limited exposure as a rookie back in 2020. Having earned the starting job opposite T.J. Watt after Bud Dupree parted in free agency to the Tennessee Titans, Highsmith made the most of an increased role, playing 76% of the defensive snaps (851) and started16 games during the regular season, missing one game due to a groin injury. During the regular season, Highsmith recorded 74 total tackles (46 solo), 15 TFLs, 15 QB hits, six sacks, and a forced fumble according to Pro Football Reference. Pro Football Focus gave Highsmith a 67.2 overall grade for his performance in 2021, a respectable grade for the second-year pro.

Highsmith really built off his performance as a pass rusher from his rookie season to 2021. We highlighted here at Steelers Depot how Highsmith showed flashes of a deadly spin move back in 2020 and he took it to another level in 2021 as mentioned in Alex Kozora’s pash rush breakdown on Highsmith when rushing on third down. He especially had good success spinning inside across the face of offensive tackles, putting them in a spin cycle of sorts like we see here against the Cowboys in the preseason as Highsmith gets up field on the snap, getting the LT to open his right shoulder as he then spins inside to the open gap where he gets into the pocket and sacks the QB.


Even when Highsmith couldn’t get home and finish the play, his ability to pressure the QB to throw the ball quick still made an impact. Here is another example of the inside spin against the Raiders and #74 Kolton Miller where Highsmith forces #4 Derek Carr to throw the ball quick where #83 Darren Waller makes the catch in coverage but is tackled immediately after failing to get more separation due to the ball having to be thrown early.


According to Kozora’s study linked above, Highsmith won on 31.3% of his inside spin move attempts this past season (5/16). Here are a couple more of examples against the Browns where Highsmith beats LT #71 Jedrick Wills on both attempts. The first clip shows Highsmith forcing #6 Baker Mayfield up into pressure where #91 Stephon Tuitt gets the sack on a clip from 2020, and the second clip shows Highsmith finishing the play himself, capturing Mayfield as he attempts to escape and swings him down for the sack.


The reason I showed a clip from the previous season above was to illustrate how much Highsmith has improved at finishing the play as a pass rusher. As pointed out in Kozora’s study, Highsmith’s pass rush win rate on third down rose from 15.7% in 2020 to 24% in 2021. That is notable given the increase in pass rush attempts he played, taking his sack total from two as a rookie to six as a sophomore. You see the improvement in terms of fluidity and stringing together moves like on this play against the Chargers where Highsmith exposes RT #74 Storm Norton on a disgusting inside spin, absolutely whooping him for the sack on #10 Justin Herbert.


One big part of Highsmith’s game that I highlighted back after his rookie season in a film room is the need for him to play with more consistent strength at the point of attack both as a pass rusher and run defender. After watching him through the 2021 season and going back through his tape, I can confidently say that he showed vast improvement in this facet of his game compared to his rookie season. He came into training camp in 2021 notably bigger and stronger after committing himself to working on his body in the offseason, and it paid dividends with his play.

As referenced in Kozora’s study, Highsmith’s most common pass rush move on third down was the bull rush. In 2020, he only had a 7.7% success rate (1 of 13) on such rushes due to lack of ability to convert speed to power. In 2021, that success rate jumped to 24.4% (10 of 41), showing us am improvement of playing stronger at the point of attack and being able to walk back blockers into the lap of the QB. Here are a couple of examples against the Ravens and Seahawks where Highsmith takes the veteran LT from both teams and puts him into the lap of the QB, forcing incomplete passes on both rushes.


While Highsmith notably improved his overall success rate on such rushes as well as his productivity in Year Two, he still can take a step forward heading into Year Three to turn more of these pressures into sacks and TFLs. There are plenty of examples where Highsmith wins on a spin or bull rush like this next play here against the Vikings but is unable to finish the play. A similar struggle that both Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree struggled with earn in their tenures with Pittsburgh, look for Highsmith to become a more effective rusher going into 2022, finishing more of these plays with the QB on the ground.


When it comes to run defense, as mentioned above, Highsmith played noticeably better last season compared to his rookie campaign. His improve play strength at the point of attack as well as his technique at setting the edge helped him immensely when keeping contain against tackles and tight ends. He would often get out of place last season against tight ends, allowing them to cover him up and seal him off on the run to his side. However, Highsmith improved in this area in terms of stacking and shedding blocks like this first clip against Green Bay and stringing plays out toward the sideline like on the second clip against Cincinnati.


Highsmith can still get engulfed by sheer size and power at times when manned up against hulking OTs, but he has learned to play with better technique as mentioned earlier to defeat blocks before the offensive lineman has a chance to cover him up. We see a great example here against Bills LT #73 Dion Dawkins, catching the blocker lunging forward toward him out of his stance and quickly sheds the block to make the tackle on the back in the backfield for a loss on the play.


Overall, Alex Highsmith played about as well as one could expect as a former third-round pick out of a non-Power Five school in Charlotte who had to go from playing with his hand in the dirt to standing up in Pittsburgh’s defensive system. He managed to get onto the field and play meaningful snaps as a rookie but saw a noticeable jump in his play in 2021 in just his first full season as a starter. Because of the improvements he has made physically on his bod as well as on his technique as a pass rusher and run defender, it’s sensible to think that the arrow should continue to trend upward for a player that is still coming into his own as an edge rusher in the NFL.

While his improvements against the run and winning in a multitude of ways are well-documented in this film room, he needs to work on winning more consistently on the outside as a pass rusher, improving his hand usage at the top of his rush and bend around the arc to flatten the corner around OTs and get to the QB both inside and outside.

Highsmith said as much in a recent interview, stating that he went back through his film and saw plenty on instances where he would win against the blocker, but failed to finish the play, specifically at the top of his rush. Working with Watt this offseason should prove to be an invaluable asset for Highsmith in that regard who has said that 10-12 sacks are the expectation heading into 2022.

Given the amount of improvement shown from 2020 to 2021 and what aspects of his game can be cleaned up heading into 2022, that goal seems readily attainable for Highsmith and could be an expectation of him this season as he looks to cement his status as the long-term running mate opposite of Watt, hopefully forming one of the best EDGE tandems in the league for years to come.

What are your thoughts on Alex Highsmith and his 2021 season? Do you think he showed a noticeable improvement from his rookie year? What are your expectations of him heading into 2022 and can he be the ideal complement to T.J. Watt on the others side? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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