The Pittsburgh Steelers’ victory against the New Orleans Saints saw one of the best defensive performances by the team to date. Marked by a second-half shut out, this performance helped give the team a much-needed victory to avoid a 2-7 start. One player that had an excellent performance was linebacker Alex Highsmith, whose showing won him the AFC Defensive Player of the Week. A 2020 third-round pick from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Highsmith also became the first player from his college to win this award. When asked about this, Highsmith stressed team-first mentality.
“That’s pretty cool,” Highsmith said in response to a question on his being the first player from Charlotte to win AFC Defensive Player of the Week on a Wednesday interview according to Steelers Live on Twitter. “I said it’s cool feeling getting that. But ultimately, the only thing that matters to me is victories. If I can go out there and help my team be the best that I can be, that’s my ultimate goal. I just know we gotta continue to be, I gotta be better come Sunday, because we know we got a really good opponent coming in on Sunday.”
While the list of defensive players that were drafted out of Charlotte is relatively small, it notably includes Highsmith’s teammate Larry Ogunjobi, who plays defensive end alongside Highsmith in the trenches. Regardless, being the first from his college to win this award is beyond impressive, and Highsmith is proving the Steelers’ investment of a third-round pick in him more than worthwhile.
Highsmith’s performance, along with much of the defense, was galvanized by the return of DPOY T.J. Watt from injury. Of Highsmith’s 8.5 sacks, five have come in the two games with Watt playing. Highsmith had the highest graded game of his career according to Pro Football Focus, as he led the team in pressures and had a crucial strip sack on Saints’ quarterback Andy Dalton.
The third-year linebacker’s career trajectory cannot be going any better for the Steelers. Having started his career as a developmental backup to linebacker Bud Dupree in 2020, he became the starter alongside Watt in 2021, and has not looked back. Highsmith’s 8.5 sacks are tied with Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Justin Houston for the fourth most in the league. Prior to the season, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin stated that Highsmith getting double-digit sacks was “absolutely within the cards.” Highsmith is now 1.5 sacks away from this preseason goal, and has an opportunity to be Watt’s sidekick for many years to come.
When having an elite player in Watt playing on the edge, having an above average rusher on the opposite end can make for a lethal pass rush. The Steelers know this well, as 2008 DPOY and long-time linebacker James Harrison had 2009 Pro-Bowler LaMarr Woodley playing on the opposite end for many years. The duo both had double digit sacks in 2008-2010, and the team made two Super Bowls and had top tier defenses in that span. If Highsmith continues his development, the Steelers will likely offer him a contract extension, which history tells us can lead to great things.