With the 2022 new league year, the questions will be plenty for quite a while, even as the Pittsburgh Steelers spend cash and cap space and use draft picks in an effort to find answers. We don’t know who the quarterback is going to be yet—even if we have a good idea. How will the offensive line be formulated? How will the secondary develop amid changes, including to the coaching staff? What does Teryl Austin bring to the table—and Brian Flores? What will Matt Canada’s offense look like absent Ben Roethlisberger?
These sorts of uncertainties are what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
Topic Statement: Alex Highsmith says his goal is to hit reach 10+ sacks this season. Will he?
Explanation: Pretty self-explanatory. In a recent interview with Sirius’ Jim Miller and Pat Kirwan, Highsmith said his goal this year is to reach 10-12 sacks in addition to playing steady run defense. Highsmith finished last season with six of them but got hot – and healthy – at the end of the season. He’ll try to carry that play over into 2022.
Highsmith finished last season with six sacks despite that production coming in just four separate games. By Week 9, he had just 1.5 sacks and only three by Week 15. Still, he got more than halfway to his 2022 goal by year’s end. A groin injury tripped him up early in the season and likely contributed to his sluggish start to the year, including missing the Week 3 loss to Cincinnati.
Highsmith improved his power and is refining his pass rush plan. He’s a hard worker and about to turn 25, reaching the potential prime of his career. The Steelers have been a lock to reach 50+ sacks per season and that can’t all come from T.J. Watt. If he reaches 20 and Cam Heyward hits 10, there’s still 20 sacks to go around. With two studs like Watt and Heyward up front, Highsmith should see plenty of 1v1 battles against left tackles. While he’ll face some good ones this season, he’s had success against quality players like Cleveland’s Jedrick Wills. Highsmith’s improved year-by-year, and there’s no reason to believe that’ll change in 2022.
While Highsmith is a talented and improving pass rusher, double-digit sacks are tough to come by when Watt and Heyward make up so much of the market share. For as aggressive and sack-happy Pittsburgh’s defense has been over the years, they’ve never had three players record 10+ sacks in one season. Two? Sure, it’s happened quite a bit, including each of the last ten years. But barring serious injury, Watt is hitting that mark and Heyward will be right around that number too. As far as I can tell, the last team with three players registering double-digit sack seasons in one year was the 2014 Buffalo Bills, when Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, and Marcel Dareus all achieved that mark. Point is, the odds of that happening this year in Pittsburgh aren’t very high.
Highsmith certainly doesn’t need to reach 10+ sacks to have a good season. He isn’t being tasked to be the Steelers’ premier pass rusher. A 7-8 sack season with steady, strong run defense is more than enough, and frankly, just plain more reasonable. And any sort of hiccup along the way, even missing a game or two, will diminish those odds of hitting that mark. Highsmith’s sacks came in bunches last year, but he’s not the type to put up three or four sack showings like Watt is capable of, allowing him to make up ground on that number in a hurry.