Entering his third season, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith was expected to put it all together defensively for the Pittsburgh Steelers, making that leap opposite star pass rusher T.J. Watt to become a key piece defensively.
Highsmith did just that in 2022, breaking out for a career-high 14.5 sacks while leading the NFL with five forced fumbles on the season. Though he didn’t earn a Pro Bowl nod, Highsmith was one of the top pass rushers in the AFC, let alone the NFL this past season.
His numbers in his third season made him an early choice as one of the most improved players in the NFL for The Athletic, which selected a player or two at each position for its Most Improved honors Wednesday.
Highsmith was joined by Washington’s Monteaz Sweat on the edge in Nate Tice’s selections.
“Life, death and the Steelers having an edge player with double-digit sacks. These are absolutes, even — in the case of that last certainty — after a season that saw reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt miss a chunk of time,” Tice writes regarding his selection of Highsmith as one of the most improved players in the NFL last season. “Highsmith stepped into the void and improved upon a strong 2021 showing (35 pressures, 14 QB hits, 6.0 sacks) by recording 14.5 sacks in 2022, along with 55 pressures and 20 QB hits.
“He was a problem for offenses on a weekly basis, even when the focus shifted his way with Watt out. A healthy Watt and Highsmith in 2023, plus the ageless Cameron Heyward in the middle, should be a handful in 2023.”
When Watt was in the lineup last season, Highsmith was a game-wrecker, recording 10.5 of his 14.5 sacks on the season, including four of his NFL-leading five forced fumbles on the year. Having a true dominant player like Watt on the other side of the defense certainly helped Highsmith out, in terms of attention paid to the other side of the defense.
Without Watt in the lineup, Highsmith recorded just 4.0 sacks in the seven games Watt missed. That’s not a bad number overall and would have put him right around 10.0 sacks on the season if Watt missed the entire year. However, the lack of production and splash plays was a bit noticeable from Highsmith without Watt on the other side.
That said, there’s no denying Highsmith took a significant step forward as a run defender and pass rusher, developing into a vital piece of the defense in the Steel City in the front seven.
How he attacks the offseason entering Year 4 coming off of a breakout season, which has him in line for a lucrative extension ahead of he 2023 season, will be very interesting to watch. Based on the way he’s progressed in his first two seasons as a starter opposite Watt, the sky is the limit for the Charlotte product.