The Steelers were dealt a tough blow with the loss of star outside linebacker Bud Dupree due to a torn ACL. With Dupree and Devin Bush both out for the season, the Steelers are looking to continue their “next man up” mentality to fill the massive void that Dupree leaves across from T.J. Watt. Stepping into that void is third-round rookie Alex Highsmith. Drafted out of Charlotte, Highsmith has been impressive in his limited snaps, but can he step up and mitigate Dupree’s absence?
Highsmith’s Tape Shows a Versatile and Evolving Player
Highsmith’s college tape was a ton of fun. Back in May, SteelersNow broke down Highsmith’s impressive tape, including a fantastic performance against the Clemson Tigers. That tape proved emblematic as Highsmith’s tools and overall work ethic have translated magnificently to the NFL. He has been awesome in the limited time he has seen on the season.
Starting with a play from Wednesday, this is one of those savvy moves that proves Highsmith is far more advanced than most rookies. Facing an elite tackle in Orlando Brown Jr, Highsmith pulls off what is called a ghost move. Watch as Highsmith fakes the long arm and gets Brown Jr to strike and raise his pad level to anchor against the power rush. Guys like Von Miller use the ghost technique as a way to throw tackles off. To see a rookie fake that long arm, and then use his flexibility to dip around the edge is phenomenal. It is truly a rare ability to have at this stage, and it proves that Highsmith is a sponge and learning new things. Brown Jr is no slouch, either. This is impressive.
This is an easy play to absolutely love. Highsmith tries to win with his explosiveness and simply rip and dip around the edge. The tackle gets depth and cuts off the edge on the arc. Part of that is because Highsmith plays a little too high and exposes too much of his chest for the tackle to work with and slow down that speed rush. Highsmith counters with a chop-rip to shed the tackle’s grasp and just goes on a full pursuit after Daniel Jones. Knowing that he is not bogged down after he gets stonewalled is massive for Highsmith. Counters are usually a year two thing, but Highsmith has them here.
One concern coming into the season with Highsmith was his run defense. While he presented growth during his time at Charlotte, he often set a soft edge and got washed out far too often. That seems to have changed this season. Whether that is because of the mentorship of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree or work spent during the offseason, Highsmith’s run defense is far above the line. He comes with outstanding pad level and that allows him to stick the guard and stun him back. Highsmith is able to keep clean as a result and control the point of attack. It is a textbook stack and shed to make the tackle on David Johnson as Highsmith sets a strong edge.
Highsmith is a rookie that is pulling off veteran tricks. The Titans run a split zone run and Highsmith is keying in on the footwork of the tight end to pinch the edge. By pinching that edge, Highsmith allows Joe Haden to come in and fill off the edge, but he also messes up the blocking pathway of the pulling tight end from the opposite side of the formation. By riding the hip of that tight end to the inside, Highsmith is able to stay clean and make a tackle in the backfield on Derrick Henry. That is mental processing turning into an excellent result for Highsmith.
Then, there is the play Highsmith made in the first Ravens game. He noted that this was off film study on the sideline where he recognized this play coming a second time and instead of riding the tight end low on the flat, he instead played a midpoint technique and caught Lamar Jackson napping. Highsmith’s high football IQ to not only adjust to that, but prove he has the sponge-like ability to go study a play and then make the adjustment in real time is yet another veteran move.
Highsmith is not playing like a third-round rookie right now. Instead he is playing like a well tenured veteran who has been around the block and seen just about everything. That quality will make him more than an apt replacement for Dupree. While he may not be able to replace all that Dupree has brought to the Steelers defense, Highsmith will be able to mitigate the loss and play at a high level.