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How Alex Highsmith Compares To Other Former Steelers Pass Rushers Heading Into Third Season

Much has been made about OLB Alex Highsmith this offseason as he heads into Year Three with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has been often named the player to watch out for by many media outlets and analysts alike thanks to his improvement shown from his rookie campaign to his second season in the league. While Highsmith did well in his first season as the full-time starter opposite DPOY T.J. Watt, there is still plenty of meat left on the bone for Highsmith to make yet another leap forward in his play in 2022, as evidenced by his personal desire to hit double digit sacks this season and to become a feared running mate opposite Watt.

When looking at Highsmith’s situation heading into 2022, it appears fairly familiar to a couple other former Steelers outside linebackers who turned into quite the pass rushers for the team during their respective tenures. One of those players is the man Highsmith replaced in the starting lineup in 2021, Bud Dupree who left via free agency to sign with the Tennessee Titans. The other is also a former Day Two pick like Highsmith was back in 2007 who primarily played defensive end in college and had to adjust to playing on his feet more in the NFL. That player is former OLB Lamar Woodley.

When looking at these three OLBs, a couple things stick out. First, Pittsburgh spent top-three round draft capital on all three as they were all former college DEs that transitioned into a standup 3-4 OLB in Pittsburgh’s base defense. Second, all three players serve more as the “Robin” to undisputed Batman on Pittsburgh’s defense with Woodley being the running mate of James Harrison for several seasons over a decade ago and both Dupree and Highsmith being the running mate opposite T.J. Watt.

If you compare the three’s rookie seasons from a statistical standpoint, you see some similarities in terms of production as they had to deal with either adjustment to a new defensive scheme, having other established players in front of them on the depth chart, or injury that limited their overall impact in their first seasons in the NFL.

Alex Highsmith Rookie Stats:

16 games played (five starts), 48 combined tackles (30 solo), five TFLs, two sacks, one PBU, and one INT

Bud Dupree Rookie Stats:

16 games played (five starts), 26 combined tackles (17 solo), four TFLs, four sacks, and one PBU

Lamar Woodley Rookie Stats:

13 games played (zero starts), 19 combined tackles (17 solo), three TFLs, four sacks, and one forced fumble

It’s interesting to see Highsmith and Dupree have the exact same number of games played and starts made in their rookie seasons. While Woodley wasn’t credited with a start in 2007 according to Pro Football Reference, he still made a similar impact to the others on the stat sheet. However, when we compare the three players and the leaps they made from their rookie seasons to their second seasons, you notice one player stick out compared to the other two.

Alex Highsmith Rookie Stats:

16 games played (16 starts), 74 combined tackles (60 solo), 15 TFLs, six sacks, and one forced fumble

Bud Dupree Rookie Stats:

Seven games played (four starts), 24 combined tackles (19 solo), six TFLs, 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and one PBU

Lamar Woodley Second Year Stats:

15 games played (15 starts), 60 combined tackles (41 solo), 16 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries (one for a TD), two PBUs, and one INT

As seen above, Woodley clearly sticks out with the top second-year performance of the three. He broke out in a big way in 2008, playing on a dominant defense that helped lead Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl victory against the Arizona Cardinals where he sealed the game with the strip sack on Kurt Warner at the end of the game to prevent a comeback. Dupree was limited to appearing in just seven games in his second season due to a groin injury suffered at the beginning of the season, resulting in him going to IR. Still, he managed to make a decent impact in the snaps he did play with the team when he returned in November of 2016.

Pittsburgh bet big on Highsmith taking a step forward in his second season in 2021, letting Dupree walk as a free agent. The move paid off for the Steelers as Highsmith started all but one game, showing improvement as a pass rusher as well as a run defender with added size and strength, becoming a disruptive presence opposite Watt to the tune of 15 TFLs and six sacks. His TFL numbers were nearly identical to Woodley’s in 2008, but his lack of finishing his rush with more consistency led to him falling behind Woodley in terms of sacks and forced fumbles.

Woodley would go on to post his best statical season in 2009, his third year in the league with 13.5 sacks and 20 TFLs. Dupree again battled injury in 2017, dealing with a shoulder issue the whole season, but managed to play 15 games and post six sacks and 12 TFLs. For Highsmith who is entering his third season in the NFL, he will look to put together a performance closer to what Woodley did in his third season than Dupree which Highsmith nearly replicated last year as a sophomore with the Steelers.

Outside linebackers have been the engine to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense since the 90s when Blitzburgh was terrorizing opposing defenses. Back then, Pittsburgh had both Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene wreaking havoc off the edge. In the early 2000s, it was Joey Porter and Jason Gildon/Clark Haggans leading the charge. When the team made two Super Bowl appearances in three seasons in the late 2000s, James Harrison and Lamar Woodley became one of the most feared dynamic duos in the league rushing the passer. Watt and Dupree looked to be on the verge of becoming the next great duo right before Dupree tore his ACL, putting Pittsburgh in a pickle as to whether they should re-sign him or allow Highsmith to step into that role.

 

Pittsburgh went with the latter and Highsmith proved it was the right decision. Now, heading into Year Three with the team, Highsmith looks to take the next leap and establish himself as a quality option across T.J. Watt, taking on the role Dupree and Woodley once held in Pittsburgh’s defense and hopefully providing an impact that propels the unit back to one of the top defenses in the league in 2022.

What are your thoughts on Alex Highsmith heading into Year Three with the Steelers? Do you see any corollaries between him and Lamar Woodley/Bud Dupree and their development? Do you think that Highsmith is capable of becoming that feared EDGE opposite Watt in Pittsburgh’s defense? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

 

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