On Tuesday, HC Mike Tomlin spoke to the media in his weekly press conference where he talked about the events of last Sunday’s thrilling overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals and previewed the team’s upcoming Week 2 matchup against the New England Patriots at home.
When Tomlin was asked about OLB Alex Highsmith and the performance he had Sunday against the Bengals, Tomlin credited Highsmith for the work he has put in since coming to Pittsburgh as a third-round pick out of Charlotte back in 2020 to get to where he is today in his third season.
“I just think that it’s a natural maturation process that he’s going through,” Tomlin said during Tuesday’s press conference which aired live on the team’s YouTube channel. “His second year, he moves into a starting role and does an admirable job there. A varsity job there. And so, I think it’s reasonable to expect that he’s going to continue to improve in the ways that he’s done that since he’s been here. I don’t know that anyone of us is shocked by the performance. As a matter of fact, I think most of us are expecting it to continue. You’re not going to get three sacks each and every week, but he’s a good player and he’s a man to be reckoned with, for sure.”
Highsmith had a breakout performance in the regular season opener against the Pittsburgh’s division rival 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. Highsmith said all offseason and into training camp that double digit sacks was his personal goal in 2022 and he is on his way to accomplishing that milestone after a single week of play.
Highsmith has vastly improved as a pass rusher over his first three seasons, adding multiple tools to his toolbox in terms of pass rush moves to defeat offensive tackles. He also has improved his play strength and ability to defend the run be setting the edge more consistently than he did his rookie year while also shedding blocks to make plays on the ballcarrier. It’s expected for a player to take a notable step forward in terms of his progression like Tomlin said, but Highsmith has likely exceeded the expectations put on him by many after Pittsburgh elected to not bring back Bud Dupree and rather role with Highsmith as the new starter opposite T.J. Watt.
Highsmith had his best performance of his young NFL career last week, but now will be called upon to keep that high level of play going now that the team will be without Watt for the foreseeable future. While Highsmith will not be able to replicate the pressure and havoc Watt causes on a down-to-down basis, his continued ascension could go a long way in helping Pittsburgh stay in games until Watt returns.