One of the most valuable commodities a football team can have, at least behind that of a true franchise quarterback, is a true pair of high-quality bookend pass rushers. The Pittsburgh Steelers already know that they are at least halfway there with reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. They are hoping this is the year that Alex Highsmith solidifies his status as they stalwart bookend.
A 2020 third-round draft pick, Highsmith moved into the starting lineup on a full-time basis last season after Bud Dupree left in free agency. Following a dominant camp, however, he tweaked his groin heading into the opener, and one can surmise that that limited his ability to come out of the gates strong.
He finished the season well, but would be the first to criticize his own play. His coaches and teammates have not been reserving of criticism, either, but only because they see how much talent he possesses and what he can do if he plays to his full potential—as Watt sees himself, and which he discussed with Pat Kirwan, Jim Miller, and Paul Alexander on Movin the Chains yesterday evening on SiriusXM Radio.
“He’s so close to having those crazy numbers. Just even in camp practice, you see how disruptive that he is. He’s got a great motor. He’s always been willing to learn, ask the right questions”, Watt said of his third-year running mate. “I really hope those finishing plays come for him this year, because he really works his butt off”.
Highsmith’s talent is undeniable, but his matching work ethic and discipline set the table for his future success, provided that he can have a healthy season. He has spent a good deal of time this offseason reviewing his tape from last year, and he sees all of the sacks that he could have had.
Watt saw the same phenomenon in his own game in recent years, and he worked diligently to leave fewer and fewer of them out there. Last year, of course, he tied the all-time NFL single-season sack record with 22.5 at the end of the 2021 season.
Now, that would be a lofty goal to set for Highsmith, but he is more than capable of being a double-digit sack contributor, and that has been one of the primary areas of focus that both he and his coaches have has for himself entering this, his third season.
A more stable front seven, both along the defensive line and among the inside linebackers, should only help him further by providing the defensive structure to allow him to maximize his pass rush without worrying about the play breaking down around him. If he can just do his job and have that lead to the sacks that he’s looking for, then 10-12 sacks should be no problem.