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Film Room: Alex Highsmith is exactly what the Steelers look for in OLBs

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The Steelers 3rd round pick shows all the traits of a Steelers edge rusher.

Marshall v Charlotte Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

The 2020 NFL Draft wasn’t considered to be very deep with pass rushers, and yet with the 102nd pick the Steelers got the #3 player for sacks (15) in the 2019 NCAA season, only Chase Young, the second overall pick in the draft, had more sacks and was draft eligible. Alex Highsmith didn’t stop with just sacks though, he also had the second most tackles for a loss (22) the most of any player in the draft.

Alex Highsmith fell that far because he was from a smaller school, UNC Charlotte, and had only put up one year with more than 3 sacks. Alex Highsmith is also too small to play DE, at 6’3” and 248 lbs he is the perfect size to play OLB. Which is fine, because on tape, he shows all the traits the Steelers like in their OLBs.

For this film room we are going to focus on three games where he played against tougher competition, The 2018 game against Tennessee, the 2019 game against Clemson, and his school’s first bowl game, against Buffalo.


Run Defense

Run defense was one of Highsmith’s strengths as both a junior and senior, with 40 tackles for a loss, and really high run defense grades from PFF. It shows up on film too.

Alex Highsmith (#5) is the Left DE, bottom of the screen.

Highsmith loses first contact, but sheds the block and gets back into the play to stop any forward lean from the RB. This kind of “fight for every blade of grass” mentality is right up Tomlin’s alley.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the top of the screen.

Highsmith quickly contacts the tackle, and keeps himself in the gap with his inside arm free. You can see the slot defender crashing forward to seal the edge, that isn’t Highsmith’s job on this play. Highsmith sets up in his lane, and once the lead blocker is past him, he strikes for a 2-yard loss.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the top of the screen.

Highsmith has a lot of grass to defend here, and he does a good job of 2-gapping, and is able to get off the block and get a hand on the runner, but he isn’t a player that is going to one-arm tackle a good runner.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the top of the screen.

He does a good job attacking the pulling guard, and leads with his left shoulder, but the guard is able to get hands on both sides of Highsmith, he doesn’t keep his outside arm free, but he still forces the runner inside.

Alex Highsmith is the Left DE, to the top of the screen.

Here he gets good penetration, and drives the TE back a bit, but he commits inside enough to let the RB easily get outside him. Highsmith shows a lot of traits, but he also shows the rawness of a late bloomer.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the top of the screen.

This is a phenomenal play. Not only does he come from the outside to brings down the runner, he beats a block to do it. It is important to note that as the score got more lopsided, and more backups entered the game for Clemson the highlights get better, but he made plays against the starters as well.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the bottom of the screen.

Buffalo had a strong offensive line, the leading rushing attack in the MAC, and one of the top run games in college football. On this play they got the best of Highsmith, with just a little help from the tackle, a TE handles Highsmith pretty easily.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the bottom of the screen.

Highsmith engages the pulling center here, but he does so awkwardly, he looks like he’s trying to drive the center back into the run lane, but by leading with his right shoulder he turns his back to the play. He did this a few times in this game, it could be a scheme for this game, he didn’t do this in the other games I watched.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the top of the screen.

Alex Highsmith gets the best of this play, firing off low and driving the tackle backwards, before making the tackle for no gain.

As a run defender, Highsmith was making the same plays for Charlotte that Bud Dupree was making for the Steelers in 2019. That should stand out, Dupree was one of the better run defending edges in the NFL last season, and Highsmith brings that kind of potential.


Pass Rush

Alex Highsmith exploded as a pass rusher in his senior year, and as you would expect from a fifth year senior, he showed a pretty good understanding of pass rushing and a good amount of technique.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the bottom of the screen.

This is the stuff that got the draft fans drooling. Highsmith erupts off the line of scrimmage, and just bends the edge, nothing fancy required, just a really dangerous speed rush.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the top of the screen.

If the tackle is able to get deep in his set, Highsmith has no trouble turning speed to power, here finding a seat for the tackle right next to his QB. The throw went 5 yards out of bounds.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the bottom of the screen.

Highsmith also showed a pretty solid spin move. It needs to be tightened up and used more effectively, but he shows a pretty solid sense of when to use it. Here he ends up in the QB’s face and the throw goes high.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the bottom of the screen.

Here the tackle gets deep and is ready for the spin, but Highsmith still gets a hand in the face of the QB, this time it’s an interception.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the top of the screen.

This is a stunt he will run on the Steelers, and while the execution isn’t great, you can see the quickness he brings getting into the pocket. Once he cleans up his technique he should be a threat on these stunts.

Alex Highsmith is the Left DE, to the top of the screen.

While he made plays against the run from left end, and some sacks, he was far less dangerous rushing from the left side. This will be important, especially early on, to his production, because he probably won’t be as good when he comes in for TJ Watt.

Highsmith brings a good toolkit, similar to TJ Watt when he came out, he shows the tools, but none of them are at a really high level. When you consider his level of production, and the film he put up against the little bit of tougher competition he faced without a lot of polish, you have to think that his production has a good chance to translate to the NFL, although probably not 15 sacks a season.


In Coverage

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the top of the screen.

This is from Alex Highsmith’s Sophomore season, when he wore #46 and dropped into coverage a fair amount. Highsmith was a MLB in high school, and he shows a decent sense of zone coverage, so he should be able to do that when called for in the Steelers 3-4 package.

Alex Highsmith is the Right DE, to the top of the screen.

This play also shows his MLB experience, he reads the pass to #3, shutting it down and forcing Trevor Lawrence to attempt a much harder pass.

Alex Highsmith wasn’t dropping into coverage in 2019, but he reads the play well enough to get by in the shorter zones, and he has the football IQ to pick up on and defend sneaky plays.


Conclusion

Alex Highsmith shows a lot of potential on film, it will be interesting to see how he translates to the NFL. The biggest concern would be his size and strength, and if he can physically translate to the NFL, Jarvis Jones was highly productive and had good film, but wasn’t athletic or strong enough to make it in the NFL.

Highsmith should play on special teams and will likely earn snaps in the rotation at OLB. Barring injury he won’t be getting heavy snaps or starts, but hopefully he has a rookie season like Jason Worilds or Joey Porter had, with rotational snaps leading to a few sacks.

If he isn’t ready physically for the NFL the Steelers will be in a tough spot, but based on film, I don’t think that will be a problem. Alex Highsmith still has to produce in the NFL, but he reminds me a lot of the days when the Steelers would take a 2nd or 3rd round OLB, give them a few years and have a valuable starter.