So many admirable traits can most accurately be measured during adversity. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Plenty of individuals like to fancy themselves as a tough guy until faced with the opportunity to prove that narrative. That's when the rubber meets the road, and things become all too real for all the posers.
So what does that make this year's version of the Pittsburgh Steelers? The Steelers are the lone remaining undefeated team in the NFL, sitting in first place in the AFC North at 11-0 heading into a home matchup with the Washington Football Team on Monday afternoon. Just how much adversity can an undefeated Steelers squad actually claim to have overcome this season?
Oftentimes, you learn more about the character and integrity of your team during your failures than you do during successful ventures. How much can the Steelers really know about themselves when they have yet to taste defeat this season? Plenty would be the answer to that question, because this Steelers squad has definitely faced their share of adversity even if they haven't done so in defeat. As HC Mike Tomlin loves to remind us, the only thing that is perfect about this team is their record.
With great power comes great responsibility. The culture and sustained excellence of the Steelers franchise over the past fifty years is beyond compare in the NFL. The Steelers are renowned as winners. An announcer casually stated in a broadcast this past weekend that one reason Tomlin hasn't garnering more attention for Coach of the Year was because the Steelers are always competitive, year in and year out. Although the Steelers have missed the playoffs for back to back seasons, they are always considered playoff contenders.
That culture of stability and sustained excellence has been put to the test repeatedly this season, and it's about to be tested yet again. The Steelers season ending loss of Bud Dupree; half of the best edge tandem in the NFL, will test the Steelers depth at the position severely and may require multiple defensive adjustments across the board. The necessity of those adjustments will depend on the ability of rookie Alex Highsmith to fill some very big shoes.
Highsmith has already proven to have been a valuable addition on the depth chart, and has performed admirably whenever called upon to relieve a starter. He has displayed superior instincts for the position, especially for a rookie. The Steelers coaching staff and his veteran teammates have made a point to mention superlatives, like how he never makes the same mistake twice. He has proven to be a quick learner; which is a good thing because there is much to learn, especially now that he has to be entrusted as a starter.
That's where having the most dominant edge defender in the NFL comes in handy. TJ Watt leads the NFL in basically every splash play category for the position, but his impact goes much deeper than that. He is a well rounded linebacker, whether it's setting the edge against the run or dropping into passing lanes. He has no glaring weakness in his repertoire, as his insane work ethic will not allow it.
He is already the best edge defender in the NFL, and he is still improving, constantly working on the little nuances of the position. If he maintains his level of performance this season, he has to win Defensive Player of the Year. Anything else would be a travesty.
DPOY worthy players make everyone around them better, elevating the level of performance of their teammates. TJ Watt does that on the field by letting his dominance speak for him. Now he can make his presence felt in a different way, by taking Highsmith under his wing so to speak and teaching him all the little things he would have liked to have known as a bright eyed rookie.
I feel certain that he has already done that; along with Dupree also, to a certain degree, but the rookie is going to need an accelerated crash course on how best to navigate his biggest test to date. He has a excellent teacher and example in Watt.
Highsmith has the makings of the Steelers next outstanding outside linebacker. He is extremely versatile, similar to both Watt and Dupree in ways. Nobody set the edge against the run like Dupree. He would engage with a tight end before tossing him to the side to make the tackle with regularity. At 270 lbs Dupree was one of the biggest and strongest outside linebackers around. Highsmith will need plenty of time in the weight room to get near that level, but he is by no means a slouch against the run.
Although Highsmith is a willing and able pass rusher, his best attribute at this point of his young career is his pass coverage abilities. He has a smooth transition and always appears on balance, with obvious instincts in coverage. His ascension to starter out of necessity will be a huge undertaking, but I have faith he will be up to the task. Especially with a little help from his friends, specifically TJ Watt.
That level of commitment and leadership toward his young understudy in a community effort to win a seventh Lombardi Trophy for the Pittsburgh Steelers should have Defensive Player of the Year written all over it.