If the Pittsburgh Steelers are known for anything on the defensive side of the football, it is the ability to get after the quarterback. Under the tutelage of former Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler, no one did it better in terms of sacking the quarterback than the Steelers.
A large reason for the team’s overall production in sacking quarterbacks comes down to the talent they have on their defense. Think about the famed pass rushers who have donned the black and gold throughout the Mike Tomlin era.
The next name fans would love to see on the above list is Alex Highsmith.
Highsmith, who will be entering his third year in the NFL in 2022, was a third round pick of the Steelers in the 2020 NFL Draft. He has had modest production since entering the league, and his first year as a starter in 2021 saw him put up the following statistics:
Combined Tackles: 74
Solo Tackles: 46
QB Hits: 15
When fans think about how Highsmith is playing across from T.J. Watt, who tied the NFL’s single-season sack record with 22.5 sacks in 2021, the expectation is Highsmith would be feasting on more one-on-one matchups with Watt drawing more attention from the opposition.
Regardless of his 2021 output, Watt spoke about Highsmith while at the 2022 Pro Bowl, and he has already seen tremendous progress in Highsmith. On top of that, he can see him continue to develop with him having a full season as a starter under his belt.
“I think he’s taken a big jump,” Watt told Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. “It really helped having a couple of games (starting in 2020). It was very unfortunate that Bud (Dupree) got hurt that back half of (Alex’s) rookie season, but it allowed Alex to get a lot of those game reps and have a little bit of a transition into his second year. I know he didn’t get the stats he wanted, but I told him it’s not about the stats. It’s about playing your game one play at a time and those plays will come.”
Easy for Watt to say, his career has taken a meteoric rise since entering the league in 2017, but if anyone knows about improving your game, it would be Watt. Every season fans have wondered if Watt can somehow improve on what he did the previous year, and every year he has done that in one way or another. Watt knows what you do off the field translates onto the field, and he hopes Highsmith is ready to make that jump.
“It’s about taking that jump.” Watt said. “He is training hard, focusing on his diet. I know he is getting married so his off the field life is good. But I would love to get him up to Wisconsin for a week or so.”
Training in Wisconsin with the Watts, not just T.J. but also Derek and J.J., is something which many NFL players would long for. Something player would hope they would one day get the invitation to do.
“He’d fit in well,” said Watt. “I always tell guys, training back home is different than everywhere else, just because it’s so football specific. I’m not training to be a professional bench presser. I’m trying to be the best football player I can be, so it’s always a little unique and different from what guys are used to training like.”
Whether Highsmith takes up Watt on his invitation to spend a week, or so, in Wisconsin this offseason hasn’t been decided yet, but if it means his career takes the next step most fans would be urging him to accept the invite.
When you consider what the defense would look like if Highsmith could reach the double-digit sack milestone, it would open things up tremendously for others, not just Watt. Consider what the Steelers were able to do defensively when Bud Dupree was reaching that milestone on a yearly basis. Highsmith knows what is expected of him, and the job of reaching those goals is up to him.
As for the Steelers’ feelings about Highsmith as being the answer opposite Watt, that will become evident with how they handle the pass rusher position this offseason. If the Steelers bring in a free agent linebacker, and/or also draft a player in the 2022 NFL Draft, it will be crystal clear they aren’t sold on Highsmith as being the guy. Opposite that, if they stay put and don’t approach a pass rusher, it will be a boost of confidence for Highsmith and how the organization views his ability to get the job done.
This will be a very important aspect of the Steelers’ defense this offseason, and one to keep an eye on. Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for what could be a very crazy offseason.