Through three games, third-year Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith is turning in a star performance, leading the NFL in sacks with 4.5, three of which came in the Week 1 win on the road over the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime.
Without star pass rusher T.J. Watt opposite him, Highsmith’s play hasn’t dipped at all, continuing to generate pressure off the edge for the Steelers while continuing to play the run at a high level next to star defensive tackle Cameron Heyward.
His play so far has drawn plenty of attention through three weeks, earning praise from head coach Mike Tomlin and Heyward himself. Speaking to reporters Thursday from inside the locker room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side, Heyward praised the third-year linebacker for his growth and ascension into the cusp of stardom as a pass rusher in the NFL, providing the Steelers with two high-level outside linebackers, fitting exactly what the Steelers have had in the past throughout their history.
“I think Alex has just been on a trajectory where he’s just continuously gotten better and better. That’s a testament to the work he puts in in the offseason,” Heyward said to reporters Thursday, according to video via Steelers.com. “He communicates well, and though he is a force off the edge, for a while here we’ve always had two dogs at the outside linebacker position, and I really think we do. Whether it was James [Harrison] and LaMarr [Woodley] or you know, T.J. [Watt] and Bud [Dupree] and now you got T.J. and Alex.
“Those guys are a formidable force.”
When healthy and on the field together, Watt and Highsmith are a formidable force, which is a major testament to the growth and development that Highsmith has had through the first three years of his career.
He already has a wicked inside spin move and a terrific ghost rush in his arsenal of pass rush moves, and he’s added strength and overall physicality to his game as a run defender. Despite getting off to a fast start this season, Highsmith still isn’t quite getting the attention or respect he deserves at the moment.
That said, putting Highsmith and Watt in the same conversation as Harrison and Woodley, or even Watt and Dupree is pretty impressive overall. With his goal of reaching double digit sacks in 2022 opposite Watt, that would put the Highsmith and Watt combination in esteemed company in Steelers history, assuming both reach double digit sacks in 2022.
That would also go a long way towards the Steelers’ defense getting back to being a dominant force this season, like it showed in Week 1.