Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin largely believes that the outside linebackers are the key cogs in the engine that is the defense in the Steel City.
Good news is, he has two top 25 players at the position, at least according to Pro Football Focus’ end-of-season rankings.
In PFF’s EDGE defender rankings compiled by Jonathon Macri, outside linebackers Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt landed inside the top 25 overall. It’s not all that surprising. Where they ranked is surprising though.
Watt led the way for the Steelers, landing at No. 18 overall after an injury-filled year that saw him miss seven games and record just 5.5 sacks one season after tying the NFL’s single-season sacks record and winning the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Highsmith, who had a breakout season with 14.5 sacks and a league-high five forced fumbles, inexplicably ranked behind Watt, landing at No. 23 overall in the top 25.
“Watt missed seven games in 2022 and didn’t quite get back into the groove that made him 2021’s Defensive Player of the Year, finishing the season with his lowest pass-rush grade (71.5) since his rookie year,” Macri writes regarding Watt’s ranking at No. 18 overall. “Even without the strong underlying pass-rush metrics that he typically boasts, Watt still found a way to be productive, posting 5.5 sacks and 31 pressures on an 83% defensive snap share through 10 games.”
While Watt wasn’t himself until late in the season after returning from the pectoral injury, the Steelers’ defense found its groove again once the star returned to the lineup, allowing just over 15 points per game in the second half of the season as the Steelers went 7-2 down the stretch, rebounding from a 2-6 start to nearly make the playoffs before missing on the final week of the season.
The final two weeks of the season though, Watt looked like his dominant self once again, which should have him in position to hit the ground running in the offseason ahead of the 2023 season, which will be a big year for the star who aims to get back to the top of the leaderboard in sacks and disruptive plays defensively.
Good news is he’ll have some serious help on the other side of the defense in Highsmith, who came in at No. 23 overall.
“With T.J. Watt missing several games due to injury, Highsmith stepped up in a big way, playing a career-high 941 defensive snaps (fourth among edge defenders) and setting new highs in sacks (14.5) and pressures (55),” Macri writes regarding Highsmith’s ranking. “Highsmith’s high sack total was good for sixth in the league, a significant reason that he cracks this list. His contributions outside of the sacks can be described as nothing less than solid, as he posted 70.0-plus grades in four of five defensive categories during his big Year 3.”
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.
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.
While the rankings for Watt and Highsmith might seem a bit low overall, their landing spots are based almost entirely on PFF’s final defensive grades from the 2022 season. Watt graded out at an 82.1, while Highsmith graded out at a 78.0, which raises more questions about PFF’s grading format overall.
Still, there’s some comfort there for the Steelers’ defense moving forward that it has two of the top 25 EDGE defenders in football on its roster.