Safe to say Pittsburgh Steelers third-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith had the best game of his career in Week 10.
In the Steelers’ 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints, Highsmith was all over the field, finished with five tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, one tackle for loss and one quarterback hit. His dominant performance filled the stat sheet and led to his first-ever AFC Defensive Player of the Week performance, which just so happened to come in the same week that fellow outside linebacker and pass rushing running mate T.J. Watt returned to the lineup.
While some of Highsmith’s success can be attributed to Watt’s return along the defensive front, the third-year pass rusher was simply dominant in the win over the Saints. He showed tremendous feel for how to rush the pass, set up a variety of moves and had left tackles James Hurst and Landon Young guessing throughout the afternoon.
Right away, Highsmith showed he had a good feel for what the Saints’ left tackle was going to do. Coming into the matchup, it was well known that Highsmith has an elite-level inside spin and is developing a terrific ghost rush with speed.
On one of his first pass rushes of the day, Highsmith hit Hurst with a speed-to-power transition into a bull rush, shoving the veteran left tackle back into the lap of quarterback Andy Dalton.
Seeing that type of power Highsmith can generate in his initial punch at the top of his rush is pretty impressive. Those are heavy hands and they really shocked Hurst backwards.
Throughout the afternoon, the Saints threw a lot at Highsmith in passing situations, showing him the respect he deserves. Granted, it made it a little easier on the other side with Watt going against former All-Pro right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, but he was hobbled coming into the week, so leaving him alone one-on-one with Watt throughout the day was curious.
It was equally as curious to see the Saints throwing so much at Highsmith in an effort to slow him down, especially in the first half when Hurst was in the game.
This was a consistent look from the Saints, chipping Highsmith early in the play to throw his timing off. The Saints threw Taysom Hill at him here, and also had the likes of Adam Trautman and Juwan Johnson attempting to chip and help out whenever possible.
At times it certainly slowed down Highsmith, and it was definitely frustrating him at times, but he stayed patient and kept working on his moves — especially speed rushes — to get Hurst looking vertical.
That led to Highsmith setting up his elite inside spin late in the first half that he executed to perfection for the sack.
It doesn’t get much better than that. That’s a Dwight Freeney-like move right there, one that is nearly impossible to defend when hit with that much speed and precision.
The very next play after the sack, Highsmith put Hurst on skates after catching him oversetting and guessing again, hitting him with the speed-to-power transition, making things uncomfortable for Andy Dalton in the pocket.
Hurst did a nice job of ultimately anchoring late in the rep, but it gave the veteran tackle something to think about again.
Once Hurst left the game with a concussion late in the first half, Highsmith found himself matched up with Landon Smith, the backup left tackle. While it’s understandable to have the caveat that he was going against a second-string left tackle, Highsmith controlled what he could, which was dominating the man across from him.
Young was in for a rough second half as Highsmith had everything at his disposal from his arsenal on Sunday.
He only attempted the inside spin three times and was success on two of them. Here’s the second one.
Dalton is lucky this was a quick-hitting throw or that’s another sack for Highsmith. It’s poetry in motion. Young had no shot.
Prior to the successful inside spin above, Highsmith worked the ghost rush on Young and hit him with a few bull rushes, mixing things up and keeping the young left tackle guess, ultimately setting up his second sack of the game.
In the fourth quarter, Highsmith hit Young with an outstanding ghost rush, getting underneath the tackles hands and turning the corner to knock the football loose of Dalton’s grasp for the sack and the forced fumble.
The little Euro step in the beginning of his rush throws Young’s timing off as well, which is a terrific little wrinkle to the ghost rush. When he’s on his game, he’s so darn good as a pass rusher.
Outside of his dominance as a pass rusher on Sunday against the Saints, Highsmith made his presence felt in the run game too.
He set the edge well throughout the contest and later showed off the terrific get-off he has at the snap, racing around the edge to make a tackle for loss on a QB power for Taysom Hill.
One way to absolutely blow up a pulling guard and disrupt a play is to be far too quick to block.
That’s what Highsmith does here on his get-off, getting upfield past the block of right guard Cesar Ruiz, bending around the edge to get the tackle for loss.
The finish is the most impressive part. Highsmith is a strong person overall, but Hill is no joke with the football in his hands. Highsmith rag-dolls him to the turf with ease.
It’s no secret that Highsmith is ascending in his third season. He’s playing at a Pro Bowl level and is putting himself in line for a big extension this summer, or a significant pay day in free agency after the 2023 season.