The Pittsburgh Steelers are known for their defense, but more importantly sacking the quarterback. After leading the league in sacks in 2020, the biggest question surrounding the black and gold pass rush is whether Alex Highsmith can fill the void left when Bud Dupree jettisoned for the Tennessee Titans via free agency.
Highsmith had a stellar rookie season as the No. 3 pass rusher, but saw extensive experience when Dupree was lost for the season with a torn ACL. That experience has people excited for what Highsmith can do in Year 2 with a full year under his belt.
Prior to the start of mandatory minicamp, T.J. Watt spoke with reporters and was asked about Highsmith filling the gap left by Dupree, and if he would be able to step up and take attention away from his side of the defense.
“I don’t know if I can say exactly when, even when it was Bud and I, they were sliding to either one of us, chipping and everything,” said Watt. “It was carryover from when it was Bud and I. We were seeing a lot of chips and slides.
“Alex is a really talented pass rusher himself too. If guys want to slide my way and chip and everything, he is going to have one on ones on the backside and I am very confident he is going to win the majority of those battles too. I don’t think there is a way you can totally protect both of us at one time.”
Watt has been with Dupree since he entered the league, and leading up to 2020 the duo was one of the best in the NFL. But that doesn’t hinder Watt’s excitement to working with Highsmith on a full time basis.
“I am really looking forward to working with him and continuing to work,” said Watt. “The last five or six games we had together last year gave us a real good look at how we gel together and things we can improve on collectively. That starts with camp here and getting the communication with him and the whole front five. I am excited to get to work with these guys again.”
When assessing what Highsmith does well, and where he might struggle, is up to interpretation. There is no denying his pass rushing repertoire is far and away better than Dupree’s when he was entering his sophomore season in the NFL, but Highsmith’s ability to stop the run will be key within the defense.
Watt points out it isn’t so much about stopping the run or pass rushing moves, but consistency across the board.
“I think the big thing is pass rush,” said Watt of what Highsmith brings. “He has a great repertoire of moves already coming off his rookie year. He can spin, he can do his ghost move, he is developing more power in his game. I think that is a real high positive. I also think he handles the run well. It’s just a matter of being more consistent for the both of us. I think that is the biggest challenge of being an NFL player, trying to be consistent week in and week out. I have said it time and time again. Anybody can have a great game. It’s about putting together great weeks and a great season. That starts with being here at minicamp.”
As for Watt, who is coming off another season where he was arguably snubbed for the Defensive Player of the Year award, his goal in 2021 is to provide more splash plays for the defense. Whether it be sacks, forced fumbles or interceptions, game changing plays is where he is focusing his attention.
“I just want to be the best possible player I can be, not just for myself but for the Pittsburgh Steelers,” said Watt. “I want to make splash plays. The big thing for me is noticing the plays I didn’t make last year, wishing I could have converted on some forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, sacks, tackles for a loss. There is a lot of good from last year, but there is a lot of stuff I can continue to improve on. That is why I love this game so much. You are never at your ceiling. I am just trying to get better each and every year.”
So, bringing things full circle, will Highsmith be able to make Steelers fans forget about Bud Dupree? Maybe, to an extent, but I don’t think anyone is expecting Highsmith to completely erase Dupree. If Highsmith can simply take a step forward in his progression, the Steelers’ defense will continue to be one of the best in the league.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the 2021 regular season.