Alex Highsmith isn’t just T.J. Watt’s edge rushing cohort for the Pittsburgh Steelers; he’s a rising concern for offensive tackles. After starting five games at the end of his rookie season to replace Bud Dupree, Highsmith became the permanent starter at outside linebacker across from Watt in 2021. He posted six sacks and showed real growth after a promising rookie year that flashed potential.
Highsmith made it clear earlier this week he wants to be in the double-digit sack club this season. Highsmith took a step up in his second year, not just in his stats, but in his technique as a pass rusher. The details of his game have gotten sharper, and it’s clear he’s studied his own game enough to improve as a rusher.
Watch this pressure Highsmith put on Phillip Rivers last season. This was a good pressure that forced Rivers into a bad pass that was intercepted by Mike Hilton. Notice how Highsmith won the rush with his burst off the snap. His explosiveness beat his man and there wasn’t much done with his hands to beat his opponent:
After his rookie year, Highsmith sharpened his attention to detail. Here’s a similar rush against a five-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle in Duane Brown. Brown is in the last parts of his career at 36 years old, but still knows all the techniques to handle various rushers.
Highsmith beat him off the snap, but then also used a strong rip move to get under Browns’ hands. That move cleared his path to Geno Smith and led to the sack on third down:
That rip move might seem slight, but it makes all the difference to beat offensive tackles. Highsmith came to the NFL with pass rush moves in his arsenal. But now he’s added more moves that have made him more difficult to predict.
Even as a rookie, Highsmith had a sharp spin move he would use to get to the quarterback. The essence of the move is to set up his opponent with an outside stunt so that the inside gap is free for him to spin into and charge full speed to his target. It’s nifty when it works, but if a tackle sees it coming, it’s easy to shut down.
But with Highsmith’s addition of more moves and techniques that opponents must study, the spin move isn’t as predictable. Watch how he fooled Jedrick Wills Jr., the 10th overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, with a spin move.
Highsmith’s initial burst off the ball forced Wills to slide a few yards away from the line. That created a big gap for Highsmith to attack with his spin move, and led to Baker Mayfield’s being sacked:
Technique is one big aspect of success for a pass rusher, but so is having a good football IQ in the moment. Young pass rushers can often run themselves out of plays by being too aggressive or too passive in the moment. When that happens, quarterbacks use that mistake to find time and take advantage of an edge rusher who took himself out of the play.
Highsmith has cut those mistakes in his game down to a minimum. Watch how this edge rush against Patrick Mahomes forced the quarterback up into the pocket. Highsmith could’ve let up or taken a wrong path to finish this play.
But instead, he knew with the additional pressure from the other side of the formation that Mahomes would have to stay on the move. That led to his hit on Mahomes for a sack and a forced fumble:
One of Highsmith’s best traits is that there’s never a question about his motor. Each play is an example of his ability to get off the ball and attack. But for young edge rushers, that motor can lead to missed opportunities when they have to deal with more complicated plays from the offense.
It’s important to know when to change paths as an edge rusher to work in concert with your teammates. Watch how Highsmith took a chip block from the tight end before Wyatt Teller, the guard from the opposite side of the formation, pulled to block Highsmith.
Highsmith didn’t panic and readjusted his path to Mayfield by cutting inside of Cam Heyward. Instead of continuing a traditional edge rusher’s move like a rip, swim or a spin to win the outside shoulder, Highsmith recognized the deep drop by Mayfield after play action and shortened his path for the sack:
Smart plays like these made Highsmith one of the more improved Steelers of 2021 as a legitimate starter. If he takes a similar leap for his third season in 2021, he very well could join Watt in the double-digit sack club by season’s end.