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Steelers Vertex: Loss vs. gain at starting outside linebacker

Are the Steelers in position to replace the production lost at outside linebacker from 2020?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

With the craziness of the 2021 NFL draft now behind us, it’s time for the glorious return of Steelers Vertex. With changes in the Steelers roster from 2020 to 2021, we’re going to highlight players lost at a position and the production of the assumed replacement. First up is the starting outside linebacker position.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Thankfully, the one player we do not have to discuss here is T.J. Watt. He is still with the Steelers in 2021 and hopefully will be with the team much farther beyond. This breakdown is simply looking at the Steelers loss of Bud Dupree and the estimated production of Alex Highsmith.

It gets a little tricky with looking at Dupree’s production because he only appeared in 11 games. If looking at where Dupree projected to finish the 2020 season, it was very similar to his 2019 numbers. Although Dupree finished with 8.0 sacks in 11 games, he was on pace to match is 11.5 sacks from 2019. Although through 11 games Dupree had less than half of the total tackles (31) then he had in 2019 (68), he was on pace to have a higher number of quarterback hits as he finished 2020 with 15 while only having 17 in 2019.

When it comes to Alex Highsmith, his statistics could be broken into two categories as the first 11 games he did not see any more than 30% of the defensive snaps but the final five games he had no less than 83%. Interesting enough, a number of Highsmith statistics did not see a huge increase with his increased playing time. Two categories where there were a noticeable increase were his tackles as he had 28 combined tackles over the last five games out of 48 on the season. Additionally, Highsmith’s six quarterback hits on the season had five of them occurring throughout his five starts. Two of Highsmith’s five tackles for loss on the season came in games he started, and one of his two sacks he had on the season also occurred during the final five games.

It’s difficult to project Highsmith’s production had he started the entire season, but what brings an interesting comparison is he was in a very similar situation his rookie season as Bud Dupree was back in his rookie year of 2015. Both players appeared in all 16 games and started five for the Steelers. Dupre did have a significant advantage in the number of defensive snaps played his rookie season as he logged 563 to Highsmith’s 437. While Highsmith had significantly more tackles (48 versus 26), Dupree had twice as many sacks (4.0 versus 2.0). Their quarterback hits and tackles for loss were almost completely identical and both players had a pass defensed. One other difference was Highsmith did have an interception his rookie season while Dupree did not.

Since the numbers appear to be so similar, it would be interesting to compare how Dupree performed his second season in order to project what Steelers’ fans could expect from Highsmith in year number two. Unfortunately, Dupree missed the first nine games of 2016 as he was on injured reserve. Dupree appeared in the Steelers’ final seven games of the season and started the last four. Interesting enough, Dupree pretty much matched his rookie production in less than half the number of games.

A safe bet would be to roughly double Highsmith statistics he put up in 2020 since Dupree looked to be on pace to do so his second season had he been able to play the entire year. In doing so, the Steelers could possibly see a reduction in sacks but could see more tackles than what they saw from Dupree in 2020.

But these are just estimates. We can try to match the numbers all we want to in order to see if there will be a significant drop off at the starting outside linebacker position in 2021. More than the numbers, the film could paint a much different story.

The Film Line:

Bud Dupree is on my short list of favorite Pittsburgh Steelers. His growth from an unpolished athletic freak to a man who draws legitimate comparisons to Greg Lloyd on the field has been amazing to watch. I’ll be sad every time I see him in a different jersey.

But I’m also a fan of what Alex Highsmith showed in 2020. Let’s see where Highsmith measures up as he looks to replace Dupree in 2021.

Bud Dupree (#48) is the edge rusher to the right side of the screen.

One of my favorite Dupree clips. He delivers a blow that stops 8 time Pro-Bowl guard Marshal Yanda in his tracks, holds ground and then breaks off to make the tackle. Dupree single-handedly destroys this run play.

Alex Highsmith is unlikely to reach the level of run defender Dupree was from 2017- 2020. In 2020 the Steelers faced the fewest runs to the offense’s left (toward Dupree) of any defense in the NFL while Dupree was healthy, and it balanced out after Dupree went down for the season. For years Dupree’s side of the field had been hard to run on, in 2020 they stopped even trying. They ran at Highsmith.

But that doesn’t mean Alex Highsmith can’t be a stalwart run defender.

Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the top of the screen, lined up over the tight end.

Highsmith controls the tight end here, reads the run and is the major force behind this rare tackle for a loss in Week 17. The Steelers rested most of their best defenders in Week 17, and Alex Highsmith showed up on film as one of the best players left on the field on a lot of plays.

Alex Highsmith (#56) is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.

This one I really love. He controls the tight end again, driving him outside, while keeping his inside arm free, and when Nick Chubb tries to cut away from Highsmith (great vision by Chubb to see Highsmith has his lane shut down), Highsmith still gets him down.

Bud Dupree is the edge defender to the top of the screen.

In 2019 and 2020, Steelers fans started seeing more of this, and less running past the quarterback from Bud Dupree. While Dupree is still not a top-tier pass rusher in my opinion, adding the ability to win a straight up pass rush to his top-tier pocket containment makes him one of the most valuable #2 rushers a team could have.

Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.

With T.J. Watt on the sideline in Week 17, the Browns gave their first-round tackle, Jedrick Wills Jr., help from a tight end. It doesn’t work. Highsmith re-orients after the tight end flattens his rush angle, and rips out a “ghost” move to get to Baker Mayfield. Rookie Alex Highsmith showed more pass rush moves than a much improved Bud Dupree showed in 2020. Highsmith is a much more developed pass rusher than Dupree, but again, Dupree’s chief pass rush value was pocket containment, and his elite ability in that role shows up when you look at team sacks per game and QB scramble yards allowed when Dupree played versus when he didn’t.

It also shows up on film in plays like this one:

Bud Dupree is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

Bud Dupree traps Lamar Jackson in the pocket, and when he tries to run to the open side of the pocket to escape, Dupree runs him down. Teams and quarterbacks know that trying to escape with Bud Dupree around usually goes badly, and have since the 2016 playoffs when Dupree knocked Dolphins QB Matt Moore out of the game when he scrambled out of the pocket.

This is the biggest change Highsmith brings in comparison to Dupree. Highsmith is a better pass rusher than Dupree, but if he lets quarterbacks escape from the pocket, the team’s pass rush will be worse for it. Rushing with containment is something both Highsmith and T.J. Watt will need to be better at with Bud Dupree no longer on the field for the Steelers.

The Point:

Bud Dupree was a great fit for Keith Butler’s pass rush schemes, and the Steelers with Keith Butler and Bud Dupree have been one of the best sack-producing teams in NFL history. In 2016 with Cam Heyward out and old James Harrison opposite a younger, and more raw Dupree, the Steelers averaged 3 sacks a game once Bud Dupree returned from injury. In 2020, Highsmith, Watt, Heyward and Tuitt averaged 3 sacks a game with Dupree out of the lineup, less if you count the Wild Card game.

So while Alex Highsmith can replace almost all of what Bud Dupree brought as an individual player, the scheme, and the other rushers, will have to adapt to the loss of Bud Dupree. Alex Highsmith will be just fine, as long as the team lets him play to his strengths and doesn’t ask him to be Bud Dupree.