The Pittsburgh Steelers are known for their defense. It’s been this way since the 1970s and the legendary Steel Curtain. But it wasn’t just that dynasty which blazed the trail of Pittsburgh defenses. There were many defenses which set the “standard” Mike Tomlin still speaks of to this day.
The Blitzburgh defense of the 1990s and the dominant defenses of the early 2000s which saw them stifle the most prominent offenses the NFL had to offer. Both of which were part of the history, and legacy, of defensive football in the city of Pittsburgh.
While the 2022 defense didn’t set the world on fire as Teryl Austin took the reigns for the first time as defensive coordinator, the Steelers have two pass rushers who are among the league’s best.
Everyone knows the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt, but Alex Highsmith’s 14.5 2022 season has he and Watt among the league’s best when it comes to getting after the passer. In fact, Highsmith’s season last year has him confident heading into 2023.
“It was a good year, but I’m far from satisfied,” Highsmith told the Steelers official website. “I never get complacent or comfortable, but I am grateful for a better year and being injury free for a year. I got hurt before the year in camp but was fortunate that I went through the season without an injury. I got little bumps and bruises, but I’m just blessed to have this platform that God has given me. I always want to be grateful no matter how it’s going.
“I never want to get complacent, but I always want to be grateful.”
Up until last season, Highsmith’s numbers had been very average, at least in the sack department. His rookie season he registered just 2.0 sacks, and followed that up in his second year with 6.0 sacks. As you can imagine, the 14.5 in 2022 has given him a boost.
“It gave me a lot of confidence,” said Highsmith. “In 2021, I didn’t have a good start to my year dealing with injuries. I ended up finishing the year strong. This past year, I just wanted to start fast and continue it throughout the year. I felt like I was playing with more consistency this year and more confidence because I know the type of player that I can be. I just want to continue to get better every year.
“It was just a whole different confidence level this year. I’m just going to try to do my best every year to have even more production. If it doesn’t come, I’m still going to do this. I’ll still be the same guy, still doing the same type of preparation that I do. I’m a process driven guy, so I’m not driven by the results or the outcomes. If I knew that I was going to go into a game and not get any sacks, I would still prepare the same exact way. I just want to continue to be process driven through this next year.”
It should be noted how Highsmith was able to register his first double-digit sack season in a year where T.J. Watt missed the majority of the season with a pectoral injury. While he was out of the lineup, Highsmith didn’t have the same amount of production, but when Watt was in the lineup Highsmith was able to dominate.
“It stunk losing T.J. who is the best in the world at what he does,” Highsmith said. “I just wanted to go out there and be my best self every game. I wanted to continue to do what I was doing after that first game, coming out and having three sacks the opener. I wanted to continue to apply pressure and get to the quarterback. I just wanted to go out there and be my best.”
Speaking of Watt, he is more and more impressed with what he sees from his pass rushing mate who is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
“Alex doesn’t need much guidance,” said Watt. “He’s really gotten into his own routines now. He has a great rush repertoire. If he has any questions, I’m always there to provide answers. But he’s a product of himself. He’s worked his absolute butt off to get where he is.
“To see the growth. That jump from year one to year two in the league, and then from year two to year three and you just hope to keep climbing. He’s been able to do that, and it’s been awesome to see your counterpart put in the work and be rewarded and the future’s bright for the outside backers of the Steelers.”
With Watt locked up for the long term, the next question which comes up is whether the Steelers will be able to sign Highsmith to an extension and keep the duo together for the long haul. If that happens, it likely won’t be until after the 2023 season, if at all. Especially if he has another dynamic season in 2023.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the remainder of the NFL offseason.