The Pittsburgh Steelers came out of Sunday’s divisional clash with the Cincinnati Bengals the victor in a 23-20 thriller. The defense came to play in this one, sacking Joe Burrow seven times and forced five turnovers with one fumble recovery and four interceptions, one of which was an interception return TD by S Minkah Fitzpatrick.
While Fitzpatrick played a phenomenal game along with defensive captains T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward doing their part, OLB Alex Highsmith should be one of the most talked about players on the defensive side of the football. It was a true coming out party for the third-year edge rusher out of Charlotte as he posted nine total tackles (six solo), two TFLs, three sacks, four QB hits, six hurries, a pressure, a forced fumble, and a 12.3% pass rush win rate according to Pro Football Focus.
For a player that has said all offseason and into training camp that double digit sacks was the goal this season, Highsmith is well on his way to accomplishing that milestone after Week 1. The man was a fiend off the edge against the Bengals, defeating former first-round LT Jonah Williams on multiple occasions to get pressure on Joe Burrow in the pocket. You see that here on Highsmith’s first sack of the game where he hits a wicked inside spin move on Williams, putting the tackle into a spin cycle as he gets into the pocket. Burrow starts to escape, but Highsmith keeps his balance as he fights around the block attempt and brings Burrow down for the sack.
Highsmith has won a fair amount in the past when he rushes inside, but he showed Sunday that he has improved his ability to win around the edge as well. Here on his second sack of the afternoon, we see Highsmith execute a dip/rip combo on the edge, getting underneath the block by Williams as he turns the corner and drills Burrow in the back for the sack strip fumble which Cam Heyward recovers for Pittsburgh.
Highsmith’s third sack of the game wasn’t as impressive as the first two as it was more of a gimme thanks to the efforts of Cam Heyward. Highsmith attempts another inside spin on Williams, but the LT stops him in his tracks. Fortunately for Highsmith, Heyward comes screaming into the backfield on a loop into the open gap, getting a hand on Burrow but can’t bring him down. Burrow gets out of the tackle attempt by Heyward by runs right into Highsmith’s grasp who brings him down for his third sack of the game.
While Highsmith was exceptional for most of the game, he did have a couple of mishaps. One of those miscues comes on this offsides penalty Highsmith gets flagged for after attempting to jump the snap, giving Burrow a free play where he finds Tyler Boyd down the middle of the field for a 22-yard completion.
Still, Alex Highsmith made far more of an impact than just from his sacks alone in this game. He showed improved awareness and ability to get off blocks to make plays against the run. Highsmith’s potentially most crucial run stop comes on this rep where he begins rushing the passer, but notices Burrow leaving the pocket on the scramble up the middle and pushes Williams off his frame, quickly working back inside to chase down Burrow right before he reaches the goal line to prevent the TD.
As mentioned above, Highsmith showed notable improvement at getting off blocks against the run compared to where he was as a rookie and last season in 2021 in Sunday’s win over the Bengals. His hand usage along with his pursuit of the football allowed him to get in on more plays like the one he makes here where Mixon takes the handoff on the draw and bounces it to the outside. Highsmith watches this as he fights off the block from Williams and works laterally down the LOS to the opposite side of the LOS where he meets Mixon and takes him down for a short gain.
On this zone run to the left, we see Highsmith do a great job stringing out the play and keep outside contain on the right side by man-handling the TE. He then spins off the block and finds Mixon bouncing the run right toward him, driving on the ballcarrier instantly to drop him to the turf.
He played a lot stronger with his hands at the point of attack than in the past two seasons, being able to engage with the blocker and rip off his frame quickly to get in on the play like we see here on these two plays where he rips off the block attempt by Williams to get in on the action in the backfield.
Highsmith gave us a bit of a scare on this play where the Steelers are backed up against their own goal line with Mixon getting the ball up the middle. He and T.J. watt come flying in from either edge with Watt going low and Highsmith going high across Boyd’s face into Mixon, cutting him down in the backfield. Highsmith stays on the ground for a while after getting shaken up on the play but would shortly return to the game.
Overall, it was a coming out party of sorts for Highsmith who mentioned time-and-again this offseason that he wanted to post 10-12 sacks in his third season. As of today, he has three under his belt with 16 regular season games yet to be played, putting on track to match and surpass that goal he set for himself months ago.
Alex Highsmith showcased another leap in his development as a well-rounded outside linebacker Sunday against the Bengals. He was effective as a pass rusher by winning both on the edge and inside, putting pressure on Joe Burrow all afternoon while finishing the play on three separate occasions. He also displayed improvement as a run defender, holding his own on the edge and did a great job defeating blocks and making plays in the backfield in that regard. Highsmith struggled at times in the past keeping outside contain and ripping off blocks, but he managed to take a step forward in that aspect of his game as well by winning against Cincinnati’s LT often and routinely beating the TE when matched up as a run blocker.
Many media outlets pegged Highsmith as Pittsburgh’s breakout player in 2022, and he is off to a good start to prove those people right. He will be called upon even more going forward with T.J. Watt expected to miss some time due to a pec injury, making Highsmith’s ascension in 2022 even more important if Pittsburgh looks to stay in the thick of the playoff hunt.
What are your thoughts on Alex Highsmith? Do you think that he had a breakout performance against the Bengals Sunday? How do you think he will fare the rest of the season and in the time that Watt is away from the field? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!