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Alex Highsmith won’t fill Bud Dupree’s shoes on his own

With a second incredibly talented linebacker out for the season, it’s Next Man Up time again.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Bud Dupree was getting after the quarterback at a career record rate, with sacks, pressures, hits, hurries, all of it. He was on pace to beat his breakout 2019 campaign as a pass rusher. That season was cut short with an ACL tear, and while Bud Dupree is faced with the challenge of recovering from a season ending surgery while looking for a new contract, the Steelers are faced with their own challenge, replacing one half of their best pass rushing duo since James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were dominating from 2008-2010.

Let’s take a look at the Steelers options in filling Dupree’s shoes.

Alex Highsmith

The first player to cover is the Steelers 3rd round draft pick and the #3 outside linebacker for most of the season, Alex Highsmith. Highsmith started the season as the #4 outside linebacker, but quickly passed Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and became a fixture as a rotational linebacker.

Highsmith has shown he can play at an NFL level, and while he’s not at Dupree’s level yet, he’s shown flashes that he can be that guy.

Week 10, 4th quarter, 6:40. Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.

The Bengals run outside zone, Highsmith crashes inside, hitting the guard to stop his lateral progress, while Avery Williamson and Terrell Edmunds head outside. HIghsmith does the job, and he keeps his outside arm free and makes the play when the running back cuts back.

Week 12, 3rd quarter, 12:45. Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.

Highsmith has to set the edge here, and he’s getting driven back by the behemoth that is Orlando Brown Jr., but he’s able to shed the block and get to the runner, stopping this play for a short gain. Alex Highsmith has been a solid run defender since week 1 of the season.

Week 9, 1st quarter, 4:45. Alex Highsmith is the edge to the right side of the screen, out on the far hashmarks.

This is Highsmith’s only sack of the season so far, and it may remind you of Bud Dupree early in his career. This isn’t a technique win, but with athleticism, strength, hustle and good coverage, Highsmith gets to the quarterback.

Highsmith does have good pass rush moves, he just hasn’t gotten a sack with them yet. Like this move he threw down against the Ravens in week 12.

That’s a “ghost” move. It’s a tough move to execute well and you can see why. He has to sell the long arm to get the lineman to bait the lineman’s hands coming out, then drop his arm and torso quick enough to dip under those arms. This move is one Denver’s Von Miller used a lot in his prime, and it you have the strength to use a long-arm bull rush this is a fantastic counter move to have in your arsenal.

To see Alex Highsmith using it this well as a rookie is impressive, and forecasts great things for his future as a pass rusher.

The sad part of this play is while Highsmith is winning his pass rush, Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley has just baited Joe Haden into jumping the slot receiver’s out route and throws to Marquise Brown in what would end up a 70 yard touchdown. If the coverage is there and McSorley holds the ball a second longer Alex Highsmith is likely making the highlight reel.

Highsmith is going to be thrown into the fire 12 games into his rookie season, and while he’s shown promise, he’s still a rookie. He hasn’t had a real offseason to get into peak condition and work on mastering his craft. While he shows lots of potential and flashes of greatness, that’s all it is until it turns into on-field results. Let’s hope he’s ready to make that leap.

Alex Highsmith will be the primary player to step into Dupree’s shoes, but he won’t do it alone.

Will losing Dupree alter the Steelers strategy?

Bud Dupree played 609 snaps in 11 games this season, that’s 55.36 snaps per game. The Steelers need to make up roughly 55 snaps a game. Alex Highsmith is averaging 16 snaps a game since week 8, so he won’t be taking all of those snaps. I doubt the Steelers want him playing 88% of snaps like Dupree was, so I expect around 30 snaps a game increase for Highsmith, that leaves around 25 snaps to fill with other players. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi will step up his snaps as well, but his career high is 13 snaps, and his double digit snap games are already when others are injured or in blowouts. Adeniyi will pick up more snaps, but between them, Highsmith and Adeniyi leave 15-20 snaps unaccounted for each game, snaps that are likely to be filled by players that aren’t outside linebackers.

Let’s look at some of the non-edge roles the Steelers play Bud Dupree and their other outside linebackers in this season.

Week 12, 2nd quarter, 1:57. Bud Dupree is behind the defensive line, right behind the camera, in the middle of the play.

The Steelers come out with their 3-4 personnel, but line up with a 4-man front. Cameron Heyward is playing the edge, and Bud Dupree is acting as an off the ball linebacker. This set gives the Steelers a different alignment for the offense to face, and it gives them a pass rusher standing up, able to move around and change the blocking assignments of the offensive lineman right before the snap.

With Dupree out the Steelers could use more of a 4-3 set with Vince Williams in the role Bud Dupree is playing in that clip. A role Vince Williams was playing before Devin Bush’s injury forced Williams to take over different responsibilities. Avery Williamson has been playing more snaps, and could increase that share and free up Williams to blitz more.

The Steelers weren’t just using Dupree as a blitzer though, he often ended up in coverage.

Week 12, 2nd quarter, 11:50.

Looks like the Steelers normal nickel defense, except that player to the left side of the screen isn’t Mike Hilton. There’s a 4 in front of the 8 on that jersey, that’s Bud Dupree playing the slot with Cameron Heyward again playing the edge.

One of the themes of the 2020 Steelers defense has been an increase in 3-4 personnel, including using it against 3 and even 4 wide receiver sets. I’ve called out a few examples in previous film rooms where the Steelers playing 3-4 against 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) put a linebacker on a receiver and the defense gave up a play.

I eventually had to stop complaining about it, because despite the Steelers continuing to use a 7 man front against 3 wide receivers, the Steelers are the best pass defense team in the NFL. The Steelers are the #1 defense in passing yards per game, completion percentage, passer rating, passes defended and interception. Not one of those directly counts the Steelers league leading sacks or quarterback hits. This team isn’t just a pass rush, they are excelling in coverage while consistently handing opposing teams the opportunity to get wide receivers matched up on the Steelers linebackers.

Opportunities like this play against the Ravens:

Week 12, 1st quarter, 6:00. Alex Highsmith is the second Steeler from the top, lined up on either Devin Duvernay or Marquise Brown (they are the two slot receivers to the top, can’t get a good look at the numbers once they leave the pocket to say which is which).

Alex Highsmith does a great job sticking with his receiver, even when it looks like the receiver has him beat, he makes a great turn and is right there with the receiver. A quarterback who made the throw when the receiver starts to cut would have to throw a really good ball or Highsmith has a shot at his second interception of the season. The receiver furthest inside to the top is lined up against Robert Spillane, and while Spillane doesn’t do as well as Highsmith, it’s impressive to see two linebackers stay with two fast receivers who are also good route runners like that.

Despite getting coverage reps as essentially a nickelback, the Steelers outside linebackers (according to PFR’s advanced stats) have given up a combined 38 receiving yards on 13 targets with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. That’s a passer rating of 39.1 when opponents target the Steelers outside linebackers.

While Alex HIghsmith, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt have all played that role in the Steelers defense, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi has not. With Dupree, who I would argue is the best of the three in coverage, out for the rest of the season, the Steelers may opt to use more actual nickel packages instead of putting Olasunkanmi Adeniyi in coverage. That would limit the versatility of the defense and the difficulty the opposing team has without knowing what defensive alignment and strategy you are going to face when you break the huddle. But with both of the Steelers best cover linebackers (Devin Bush, Bud Dupree) now done for the season, they may have to change it up.

While two of the Steelers top three linebackers are now out, the defensive line and the secondary still have a lot of depth. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some 4 man fronts with T.J. Watt as the only outside linebacker in nickel and even dime sets, especially with Mike Hilton back and the Steelers bringing another slot linebacker hybrid in Antoine Brooks Jr. back to the roster. Brooks played substantial snaps in week 10 when the Steelers went away from their 7 man fronts for a game and played in nickel and dime heavily. I would not be surprised to see a small bump in snaps for Brooks Jr., fellow safety Sean Davis, or defensive lineman like Chris Wormley, who made a couple big plays against the Ravens and is better as a big defensive end than a defensive tackle, Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis who have played well in small doses.

Conclusion: what Dupree really meant to this defense.

Dupree wasn’t just sacks, or tackles for a loss, his value was much more than that. Dupree was a player who could cover a receiver in the slot, rush the passer, run down a speedy ball carrier or blow up a pulling guard.

When Dupree was on the field the Steelers defense could do any number of things because T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and to a lesser degree Alex HIghsmith could fill any number of roles and play them at a high level.

Behind Watt and Highsmith the Steelers don’t have anyone who fits that description now. So when they pull one of those two off the field, the player replacing them won’t bring that same level of versatility.

The Steelers defense reinvented itself a bit when Devin Bush went down, leaning more heavily on their incredibly talented outside linebackers to fill a good chunk of the void Bush left. Now the Steelers have to do it again. Hopefully they can continue to live up to the standard of the NFL’s premier defense as they test the Steelers “Next Man Up” mantra.