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Does Alex Highsmith bring enough to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense?

Taking an in-depth look at what Alex Highsmith brings to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Alex Highsmith made a strong showing in his rookie season in 2020. He provided solid, albeit not flashy, play and showed a lot of promise for his future enough so that the Steelers made him the starter in his second season, playing him on 76% of defensive plays. As an edge rusher, Alex Highsmith is going to be mostly judged by sacks. While he tripled his sack production in year two, six sacks isn’t a very impressive total, ranking right around 50th in the NFL. Looking beyond sacks to quarterback hits, Highsmith, with 15, ranks just outside the top 50.

For a team that has led the NFL in sacks for six straight seasons, that’s not impressive. But it doesn’t mean that Alex Highsmith can’t get to the quarterback.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 2nd quarter, 0:52.

Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

Highsmith gets a good jump off the line at the snap, torching the left tackle. When the opposing team gives Highsmith an opening to exploit, he can take advantage of it quickly.

He has less success against good blocks.

Steelers vs. Bills, 2nd quarter, 4:46.

Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

You can see how he loses this rush, with the tackle able to overpower him as he gets into his bend. Highsmith saves the play with his tenacity and hustle and draws a holding penalty. There were other times he got taken down like this and there wasn’t a penalty, largely because the takedown worked. Highsmith fighting through the takedown makes the penalty obvious and makes this a good play for the Steelers.

Steelers vs. Bills, 1st quarter, 13:40.

Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

Alex Highsmith looks like he is leading a stunt here, and I would expect Cameron Heyward to loop outside of Highsmith when you see Highsmith crash into the guard like that. But stunts aren’t the only way to attack using this technique. As Highsmith occupies the guard, Heyward is left one-on-one with the center, a matchup he easily dominates for a batted pass.

Highsmith isn’t the best at beating lineman quickly, but when it comes to physically engaging them, he does fine, and he’s willing to do the dirty work and the offense is forced to respect that.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 4th quarter, 7:14.

Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

This isn’t some outside the box pass rush technique as you don’t sack the quarterback by running away from him. This is Alex Highsmith in a containment role. I picked this one because it is obvious, but Highsmith has a ton of plays where he isn’t trying to get off of a block, he’s two gapping on a lot of pass play to keep the quarterback from escaping the pocket. This play is intended to force the offensive line to switch the guard and tackle’s assignment, making it hard to keep Cameron Heyward blocked, while it also keeps containment on the pocket with Highsmith dropping back.

The Ravens have it countered because they slide the center to that side and the guard can hand Heyward off without worrying about Highsmith. Of course that means T.J. Watt is one-on-one with a tackle and with the Steelers trapping the quarterback in the pocket, escaping Watt proves to be a little too much to ask.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 9:44.

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

When T.J. Watt was off the field in 2021, the Steelers pass rush was weak, and Highsmith showed part of the reason when he was double teamed. He did not have the ability to generate much pressure when his blocker had help.

Highsmith showed the ability to compete and beat one-on-one blocks, albeit not at a high rate and not fast enough to beat T.J. Watt to the quarterback. Highsmith showed little ability to win when his blocker had help, but he did show the ability to capitalize and finish plays when the offense messed up and gave him an opening.

Rushing the passer isn’t the only thing for an outside linebacker to do on a passing play. There are always coverage roles, and in the Steelers 7-man fronts, one outside linebacker is going to often be in coverage.

Steelers vs. Bills, 1st quarter, 13:40.

Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

Highsmith drops into coverage here, and if you watch the quarterback’s head, those shallow crossers are the quarterback’s second read. Teddy Bridgewater is trying to dump the ball off when he’s getting sacked, and Highsmith is the guy covering the throw he wants to make. Highsmith never turns and looks at the receivers, yet he covers the crossing routes perfectly, getting to the middle then passing off his man and taking over the other route fluidly.

One thing Alex Highsmith shows a lot on film is great awareness of the play and how to defend it properly.

Steelers @ Bengals, 3rd quarter, 5:35.

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

Highsmith starts to rush the quarterback, but before Joe Burrow even turns to make the throw Highsmith has the play figured out and gets hands on the ball. Sadly he is unable to finish the play, but his awareness and quick reaction gave him an opportunity and the play is still a good result for the Steelers. As in pass rush, Highsmith has a lot of value, he just doesn’t finish the play and collect flashy stats.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 3rd quarter, 10:32.

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

Highsmith does a fantastic job on this play. He communicates well through the motion, steps out, and dominates the outside blocker cutting off the receiver from his blocking. Highsmith absolutely destroyed this play by adapting to the motion, realizing the right course of action and executing it immediately and effectively.

The Steelers have two outside linebackers with this kind of awareness, but while Alex Highsmith is a pretty solid pass rusher, T.J. Watt is one of, if not THE best pass rusher in the NFL. There’s a very good reason they put Alex Highsmith in roles where he reads the play first, then makes the smart moves and does the dirty work to make the whole defense better while they put T.J. Watt in position to rush the quarterback and not worry about the rest of the play on almost every snap.

There’s one more area to cover, and it is where Alex Highsmith shows up on the stat charts. According to Pro Football Focus, Alex Highsmith was second in tackles on run plays among all edge defenders in the NFL, and third in stops (tackles that constitute a failed down for the offense). His average depth of tackle was a pretty impressive 2.1 yards, meaning that the 42 times Alex Highsmith made a tackle on a run play that play gained an average of 2 yards.

When you consider he did that on the worst run defense in the NFL, it’s pretty impressive.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 4:58.

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

There’s a lot to take in here, but first the context. This is in the middle of the third quarter against Seattle, when the Seahawks ran roughshod all over the Steelers. Two main problems showed up in the Steelers run defense for that quarter. First, the defensive line getting pushed out of plays, often past the play opening up cutback lanes. Second, offensive lineman were getting off combo blocks at will and reaching linebackers, opening up big gains for the Seahawks runners.

Highsmith does three things well here.

On this play you can see the lineman behind Highsmith are moving laterally much faster than Highsmith is. Highsmith doesn’t have to get outside quickly on this play, he has Terrell Edmunds to take the outside. The tackle grabs Highsmith to pull him along with him, but Highsmith holds his ground.

Highsmith doesn’t give much ground vertically. Once the guard gets to him, Highsmith starts moving laterally to stay with the play, and the guard is trying to drive him off the line of scrimmage while Highsmith is moving laterally. Highsmith gives up all of 2 yards while getting shoved, that’s pretty good.

Lastly, watch the tackle as he tries to disengage with Highsmith. Highsmith keeps hold of the tackle, slowing him down and allowing Devin Bush to get outside of the tackle untouched. That forces the run right into Highsmith and he’s there holding the line to limit the gain.

That’s fantastic run defense that only shows up on the stat sheet as a tackle assist.

Steelers vs. Lions, 4th quarter, 4:27.

Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

At this point the Steelers were running a 4-4 defense with Terrell Edmunds acting as the 4th linebacker in the box. Notice that the Steelers have Cameron Heyward on the other side of the field because T.J. Watt out putting Highsmith and Heyward on the same side of the field is essentially putting a “Run here for a good time!” sign on the other side. They choose to go after Highsmith and all he does is win the outside arm of the tackle, drive that tackle backwards a yard while waiting for the runner, then disengage to force a 4-yard loss.

Steelers @ Bengals, 3rd quarter, 10:47.

Alex Highsmith (#56) is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.

Another example of Alex Highsmith reading the play and doing exactly what he needs to do to blow it up. You can see him signaling where the play is going right before the snap, then he takes on blocking tight end Drew Sample, driving him backwards in front of the play, powering through his blocker’s play side shoulder and makes the tackle.

Alex Highsmith was not a great pass rusher in 2021, and while he can still improve in his pass rush and add a lot more threat than he did in his first two seasons, his main value isn’t in his ability to chase the quarterback. Alex Highsmith is a fantastic run defender, a smart player in coverage, and he brings a fantastic awareness to the field on every snap. While I think we’d all love to see Highsmith get double digit sacks in 2022, sack totals aren’t a good judge of his impact on the games or his value to the team.