Sitting at 2-6 on the season entering the Week 9 bye week, very little has gone right for the Pittsburgh Steelers to this point in the season.
Injuries to key players, performances below expectations and an inability to stay out of their own way snap-to-snap — as far as penalties go — has culminated in a rather poor start for the black and gold under longtime head coach Mike Tomlin.
That said, there are some impressive individual performances and overall developments that bring some positives to the outlook regarding the Steelers at this moment in time, at least according to Pro Football Focus’ Marcus Mosher.
In its midseason report for all 32 teams, Pro Football Focus highlighted third-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith as the team’s biggest surprise so far this season, which really shouldn’t come as any surprise to readers.
Entering his third season, Highsmith was aiming to be that key bookend pass rusher opposite star outside linebacker and reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, chasing double digit sacks for the first time in his career.
Highsmith got off to a promising start opposite Watt with three sacks in the Week 1 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals, but since then has recorded just 3.5 sacks in the seven games since, generating just 20 total pressures after his Week 1 breakout. Still, he’s the Steelers’ biggest surprise on the season, per PFF, for the overall production he’s had to date.
“After T.J. Watt went down in Week 1 with a torn pectoral muscle, Highsmith has stepped up in a big way for Pittsburgh,” Mosher writes for PFF regarding Highsmith. He’s recorded 6.5 sacks through eight games and has really developed into a good pass-rusher in Year 3.”
That might not be good enough for some people, and it’s understandable to feel that way without Watt on the field, but Highsmith has been relatively consistent and is on pace to have the best season of his career from a stats standpoint, as well as from a grade perspective from PFF.
Currently, Highsmith sits at a 74.0 overall defensively. His highest grade to date in his career is the 72.0 he recorded as a rookie. His run defense and coverage grades are up significantly from his first two seasons, but his tackling and pass rush grades are down slightly overall.
Outside of Highsmith earning praise for his first half, veteran defensive tackle and team captain Cameron Heyward also earned praise from PFF for being the Steelers’ highest graded player through eight weeks, coming in at an 88.0 overall at the midway point of the season for the black and gold.
Some might be down on Heyward right now due to his minor impact overall as a pass rusher in the middle of the Steelers’ defense without Watt opposite him. That’s all fair, considering he’s recorded just three sacks on the season, well off his pace of the 11.0 sacks he recorded last season in another All-Pro year.
But Heyward has been very good against the run and continues to play at a high level overall, even if the stats aren’t quite there.
“Even at 33 years old, Heyward continues to be one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL,” Mosher writes for PFF regarding Heyward. “While he is no longer an elite pass-rusher, he boasts the third-highest run-defense grade in the NFL at the position. Heyward is among the most consistent defensive tackles in the league.”
The pass rush has fallen off slightly with Heyward, though that could be attributed some to the constant number of double teams and overall attention opposing offenses are paying him with Watt on the shelf. Though he’s not making as great of an impact as he’s made in the past from a pass rushing standpoint, he remains a dominant run defender, grading out as the highest run-defending interior defensive tackle in football to this point in the season, per PFF.
With the return of Watt just around the corner after the bye week, two of Pittsburgh top players in the front seven should see a significant boost in impact and overall production with the alien that is Watt back on the opposite side of the field once again. That could help the Steelers’ defense, which has allowed a league-high 32 completions of 15+ yards on the season, get back to its dominant ways in the second half of the season.