Alex Highsmith isn’t T.J. Watt but he’s doing a very-T.J. Watt thing, leading the league in sacks through the first three weeks of the season. While many around the league wouldn’t have picked Highsmith to be in such a position, Mike Tomlin isn’t surprised by the new heights Highsmith has taken.
“It’s just a natural maturation process of a solid young player,” Tomlin said via the team’s YouTube channel. “He showed signs as a rookie and carved out a role for himself and participated. He ascended in year two when Bud left in free agency, and now he’s in year three. He’s been a lap around the track as a starter.”
Highsmith has racked up 4.5 sacks through the first three weeks of the season to hold sole possession of first place league-wide. Three of those sacks came in the opener with 1.5 coming in Week 3’s loss against the Cleveland Browns. He used his potent inside spin move to beat LT Jedrick Wills, a matchup he’s repeatedly won, as we pointed out in a recent film breakdown.
Highsmith’s production is a bit streaky but his sacks come in bunches. In the eight games in which he’s recorded a sack, five of them saw him record 1.5 or more, including in both games this season. He’s been about the only source of pass rush juice for a team clearly missing T.J. Watt and makes up for 50% of the team’s sacks this season. Tomlin credits Highsmith’s solid work ethic as the reason for his improvement.
“I know his day-to-day work habits kind of display that, and so I don’t think any of us are surprised by what we’re seeing from him in-stadium. I really think that’s just the attitude that all of us have largely. We keep our head down, we keep working and we understand there’s a such thing as football justice on the other end of it.”
Football justice is working in Highsmith’s favor. Miscast as a 3-4 base defensive end for most of his time in college, he transitioned to OLB his final year at Charlotte, turning him into a Day Two pick by the Steelers in 2020. Late in his rookie season, he replaced Bud Dupree after he suffered a season-ending ACL tear and became the starting ROLB in 2021 when Dupree left for Tennessee. Last year, Highsmith battled injury and picked up six sacks, getting healthy and hot at the end of the year, four sacks over his final four games. He also got stronger and better against the run and has carried that over into this season with a team-high four tackles for loss.
As Dave Bryan wrote yesterday, Highsmith could have a matchup working in his favor this weekend. The Jets may be without LT George Fant and could turn to Connor McDermott, who has struggled protecting the blindside. Pittsburgh will need Highsmith to be the engine of the team’s pass rush. If not, the whole defense will continue to stall.