During his media session today during move-in day of training camp, Steelers’ outside linebacker T.J. Watt was asked about the growth of his fellow starter at the position, Alex Highsmith.
“I think the finishing aspect of it. If you watch any film on Alex, you can tell the stats don’t always correlate to how well he’s playing and he has a lot of great moves and he plays the run really well as well. So just looking forward to him, taking that next step and finishing those plays this year, which I think he’s more than capable of doing,” Watt said.
Highsmith had a solid season with 74 tackles, 15 quarterback hits, and six sacks playing across from Watt last season in his first taste as a full-time starter, and it wouldn’t at all be surprising for him to build on those numbers. As Watt said, Highsmith is a solid defender against the run, and if he’s able to get to the quarterback just a little bit quicker or finish off some more plays, his sack total will likely grow as well.
Obviously, playing across from a pass rusher as skilled as Watt, the opportunities to get to the quarterback before he does are a little bit limited for Highsmith. Still, he’s shown the ability to do so and that will likely only increase this year. Highsmith also finished No. 8 in the NFL with 15 tackles for a loss, and his ability to get to the running back in the backfield is a valuable trait.
If he’s able to finish more plays and show off his arsenal of moves effectively, the Steelers could potentially have two Pro Bowlers at the outside linebacker spot. Highsmith was effective as a rookie and built off that for an impressive second year. If his progression continues at the rate Pittsburgh hopes, double-digit sacks certainly aren’t out of the equation. With Pittsburgh also adding Larry Ogunjobi along the defensive line and the expected return of Tyson Alualu, there will be other guys to help collapse the pocket and let Highsmith and Watt rack up sacks.
If Highsmith can take that step forward as a pass rusher and finish a few more plays, this really could be the year the Steelers’ defense hits 60 sacks. They’ve been so close for so long, and with the defense needing to step up for Pittsburgh more than ever due to a young offense, this could finally be the year. Even if they don’t hit 60, Pittsburgh’s pass rush and pass defense as a whole should be among the top units in the NFL, and Highsmith will be a big part of that.