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Alex Highsmith is the defensive player the Steelers need to “break out” in 2022

The Pittsburgh Steelers can benefit from Alex Highsmith having himself a break out year in 2022.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

On our most recent “Here We Go, the Steelers Show” podcast, Bryan Anthony Davis and I discussed players the Steelers need to “break out” in 2022 to help them have a successful season. You can listen to that podcast at the link below:

“Break out” is a term with broad meaning. It suggests a player who has, to a certain point in his career, performed at one level suddenly elevating his game and performing at a higher one. The breakout can be unexpected, like undrafted free agents Kurt Warner and James Harrison getting cut by several pro teams before authoring Hall of Fame careers. It can be abrupt, like 1st Round pick Troy Polamalu struggling to see the field as a rookie before becoming a perennial Pro Bowler in his second season. Or, it can be subtle, like fellow 1st Rounder Bud Dupree transforming from a functional player to an impactful one four seasons into his career.

It’s hard to identify a definitive reason why these players “break out.” In Polamalu’s case, expectations were high when the Steelers traded up for him in Round 1 in 2003. When he didn’t meet those expectations immediately, concerns emerged he may be a bust. But, as a safety in Dick LeBeau’s complicated scheme, Polamalu had a steep learning curve. Once he managed it, and LeBeau gained a better understanding of how to use him, an epic breakout ensued.

With Dupree, a coaching change seems to have made the difference. Dupree came out of the University of Kentucky as a gifted but raw athlete badly needing guidance. His position coach for his first four seasons was former Steeler Joey Porter. Porter had a fiery disposition and was an emotional leader during his playing days. But, as a coach, he lacked the teaching proficiency to help Dupree develop. As a result, Dupree toiled in mediocrity over that time.

Then, in 2019, after Porter was let go by the Steelers, Dupree broke out. His totals of 11.5 sacks and 68 tackles were both career highs. Dupree was having an even better campaign in 2020, with eight sacks through 11 games, when a torn ACL ended his season and, inevitably, his career in Pittsburgh.

While it’s hard to say that coaching was the sole reason for Dupree’s breakout — T.J. Watt’s emergence as one of the game’s best pass rushers surely played a role — Dupree was a different player post-Porter. He ran himself up the field less, developed a counter move to his speed rush and finished plays that had been near-misses earlier in his career.

The Steelers have several current players they need to make a Dupree-style leap in 2022. This article focuses on the defensive player whose growth could be most beneficial, while next week’s will focus on an offensive player. The choice on defense is Alex Highsmith.

Before I turn my attention there, let’s look briefly at the other defender I considered, whose development is also crucial to the success of the defense this season. Linebacker Devin Bush regressed last year while trying to recover from the knee injury that ended his 2020 campaign prematurely. The Steelers declined the fifth-year option on Bush’s contract this off-season, meaning he’ll be eligible for free agency next March. The regression in Bush’s play was a likely factor in that decision. He had just 70 tackles after posting 109 as a rookie in 2019. He looked tentative at times, lacked explosiveness, and was thought by many to be struggling with his confidence.

Bush has played the off-ball Mack linebacker most of his career. But, with athletic free agent signee Myles Jack in the fold, the Steelers plan to move Bush to the Buck, where he will play on the strong side. Taking on blocks and being physical is a pre-requisite at the Buck. It remains to be seen if Bush can handle that role. The Steelers are thin there, with one-dimensional Robert Spillane and unproven second-year player Buddy Johnson the other viable candidates. So, they need Bush to succeed. The hope is a position switch, coupled with better health and confidence, and perhaps the motivation that comes with playing in a contract year, will help him break out.

Which brings us to Highsmith. Highsmith authored a decent 2021 campaign. He had 74 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits and 6 sacks. He excelled as a run defender, where his strength at the point of attack was evident. Highsmith’s use of his hands when taking on and shedding blockers, which we see below, is excellent. He strikes first, wins inside leverage and uses a violent pull technique to throw the blocker to the ground:

Highsmith’s power allows him to stay square at the line of scrimmage. In doing so, he’s not forced to run around blocks, and he’s rarely swallowed up when taking on interior linemen. Watch here how Highsmith (56), aligned on the left edge, pinches inside and shoots his hands into the chest of Houston’s guard, standing him up before disengaging to make a tackle:

Highsmith’s base here is excellent. Notice how he sinks his hips just before contact and then uncoils into the block. The leverage with which he plays the run, both vertically and horizontally, allows him to handle bigger blockers — in this case, a guard who outweighs him by 80 pounds.

For Highsmith to “break out,” though, he will need to marry his adeptness as a run defender with better acumen as a pass rusher. He had 6 sacks on 15 quarterback hits in 2021, which means that 40% of the time Highsmith contacted the quarterback, it resulted in a sack. By contrast, Watt had 22.5 sacks on 39 QB hits for a 58% sack rate. Von Miller, another of the league’s best pass rushing linebackers, was at 55%. Chandler Jones fell to 42% last season at age 32, but in his prime between 2015-2019 averaged 62%. Chicago’s Robert Quinn, whose 6’3-245-pound frame makes him similar in stature to Highsmith, had an astounding 84% rate last season, with 18.5 sacks on 22 hits.

Sack rate as a percentage of quarterback hits isn’t a fool-proof way to judge a pass rusher. Chicago’s Khalil Mack had 7 sacks on 8 QB hits last season. His teammate, Trevis Gipson, was 7-for-7. Both players had an incredibly high sack rate but a low rate of hits. That means they weren’t getting to the quarterback very often, but when they did, they got home. Highsmith’s numbers are actually preferable to Mack’s and Gipson’s because, despite a much lower sack rate, he had just one fewer sack on twice as many hits. That means Highsmith was creating pressure far more often. Highsmith’s QB hits were fairly high as compared to his peers around the league, but his sack total tied him for just 56th best. He was good at getting pressure last season. He just wasn’t able to finish.

The difference between the two can be minimal. It could be learning to redirect better. Or better hand play. A more proficient counter move. Keeping the feet moving through contact. For Highsmith, it’s often a matter of playing too high in his rush.

Take this play against Cincinnati. Highsmith, seen standing up just outside the right hash, to the left of Terrell Edmunds (34), pinches inside as Edmunds comes off the edge. He is picked up by left guard Quinton Spain (67). Highsmith cannot speed rush through the B-gap, and he’s not built to bull rush the 330-pound Spain. So, smartly, he attacks Spain’s outside shoulder then uses a spin move to try to beat him back inside:

Highsmith almost gets him. He times his move perfectly, spinning just as Spain lunges to make contact. This knocks Spain off balance, and it looks like Highsmith has him beat. But Highsmith can’t redirect quickly enough. He’s a little high as he spins, and the contact blunts his momentum. This causes him to re-gather his weight before gaining ground again. The slight delay allows Spain to recover, and he gets just enough of Highsmith to push him out of Joe Burrow’s line of sight, giving Burrow a clear lane to his target.

Hopefully, as he gains experience, Highsmith will learn to lean into his spin so he maintains a forward path on contact. It’s a minor difference, but one that can determine the outcome of a play.

On this next one, Highsmith is aligned to the right edge of the defense, where he uses a speed rush to pressure Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. Highsmith aligns in a “Wide-9” technique, meaning he’s positioned outside a ghost tight end. His width will necessitate a deep pass set from the offensive tackle. Therefore, to beat the tackle wide, Highsmith will have to bend sharply once he clears the tackle’s left hip.

As you can see here, he doesn’t:

Highsmith is too high to redirect towards Mahomes once he clears the tackle. The dip-and-rip with his left arm is nice, as it lifts the tackle’s arms off of him. Once he rips, though, he straightens back up. This allows the tackle to re-attach and run Highsmith past Mahomes.

Ditto for this rep against the Bears. Highsmith (top right) works the dip-and-rip move again. He’s five steps upfield before he makes contact with the tackle, which means at that depth he must get low to have any chance to turn the corner. He’s too high, though, and doesn’t create an angle to the quarterback. The tackle runs him upfield as a result, giving Justin Fields an escape route:

By contrast, watch Watt on his speed rush. He comes from the left side of the defense here to sack Vegas quarterback Derek Carr. Watt uses the same dip-and-rip move we’ve seen with Highsmith. But it is low and sudden. He dips, gets under the hands of the tackle and immediately leans and redirects. This makes it impossible for the tackle to get his hands back in place without holding. This is what is meant by “bending the edge” on a pass rush, and Watt does it expertly.

Highsmith is not yet at this level. Few players are. If Highsmith can improve on his technique, though, specifically by staying lower, redirecting and bending better, he can turn some of those near misses into sacks. That could give the Steelers a 1-2 punch on the edge that would rival the Kevin Greene-Greg Lloyd or James Harrison-Lamar Woodley duos of previous eras. This may sound like hyperbole. But, with Watt already the best edge rusher in the game, and Highsmith an accomplished run stopper, they’re a formidable pair as is. Elevating Highsmith as a pass rusher would make them deadly.

In all likelihood, Highsmith will have ample opportunity to improve on his sack numbers. Watt and Heyward will draw plenty of attention in pass protection, and with Brian Flores on board, who is widely regarded as one of the most creative blitz designers in the game, offenses are going to have plenty to worry about in pass protection. This could put Highsmith in advantageous situations, which could lead to greater production. A breakout season by Highsmith, then, could be the key to restoring the Pittsburgh defense to its place among the NFL’s best.

Stay tuned for next week’s article, where we’ll look at the offensive player whose breakout could be the key to unlocking that unit’s potential.