Bleacher Report’s Alex Ballentine recently named a surprise star for each of the 32 NFL teams. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ballentine went with third-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. Originally a third round pick back in 2020, Highsmith has slowly placed himself in a position to have a potential breakout year.
Historically speaking, the Steelers have always had a stellar front seven. Highsmith was drafted with the intention of one day taking part in that prized group. Though he only started in five games his rookie year, Highsmith proved to be apt at making plays. He broke up a pass, picked off one, got two sacks, and made five tackles for a loss to show that he would be a terror in the offensive backfields one day.
So what makes him a potential surprise star going into this season? Well, he emerged as a full-time starter in his second year, starting 16 games. On top of that, his growth grew by leaps and bounds. Highsmith continued to build off his rookie success, piling on with six sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Certainly worth mentioning were his 26 pressures; certainly attributable to that was Highsmith’s effectiveness in blitz packages. The now-retired Keith Butler brought him on 63 blitzes last year. Expect that number to grow in 2022 as Teryl Austin will look to make use of Highsmith’s speed.
According to Ballentine, if Highsmith can return to being 100 percent after suffering a rib injury last season, he’ll look to pick up where he left off. Head coach Mike Tomlin has been impressed with how Highsmith has been coming along.
“I expect grown man, varsity ball, and he’s given us that thus far. He’s highly motivated and highly conditioned. He’s excited about taking the next step.”
As a side note, another aspect of Highsmith’s development has been his run defense. Everyone loves to point out the sexy stats such as sacks (certainly noteworthy), but Highsmith is also making leaps in stopping the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Highsmith’s grade in run-defense grade improved from 57.7 to 66.5. That’s an impressive jump from Year 1 to 2. Last year, he had 342 snaps in run defense. After allowing an average of five yards per carry last season, the Steelers will need to improve their overall run defense this season. As Highsmith develops into a multifaceted defender, this aspect of his game will be worth monitoring in 2022 en route to becoming a breakout star.