PITTSBURGH — Alex Highsmith had a good second season with the Steelers in 2021. His six sacks were fourth-most on the team and his 15 tackles for loss tied him with Cam Heyward for second-most on the team. That helped the Steelers finish with 94 tackles for loss, second-most in the NFL behind the 49ers’ 98.
Most of those came from Highsmith in run defense. But when he spoke at Steelers minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, he made it clear he wants to increase his pass rush production along with his contributions against the run.
“I’ve just continued to refine my moves,” Highsmith said of his focus. “I’ve continued to get stronger and faster. I’ve gained a few pounds and I feel like I can carry my weight very well. That will translate really well to the run game as well as the pass rush. I want to be more physical with guys. I want to get off blocks faster so I can get after the passer. I’ve worked on that a lot.”
The nature of when Highsmith made his tackles is also important. According to Pro Football Focus, Highsmith totaled 45 tackles that counted as “stops,” which are defined as tackles that constituted a failure for the offense. Those 45 stops were third-most among edge defenders in 2021, tied with Von Miller and only behind Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard.
Out of the 45 stops, 32 came in run defense, which also ranked Highsmith third among edge defenders behin Gregory Rousseau and Hubbard. After he became a consistent starter in just his second season, Highsmith spent much of his downtime between the end of the 2021 season and Steelers OTAs on his craft.
“It’s been good,” Highsmith said of his preparation for his third season. “Really looking forward to continuing my growth. Every day I’ve worked to get one percent better.”
And now that he’s gone from a rookie who filled in behind Bud Dupree to the team’s starting edge across from T.J. Watt, Highsmith feels ready to step up more than just on the field. He’ll turn 25 on Aug. 7, and sees himself being more vocal on the team.
“I’m trying to step more into a leadership role this year,” Highsmith said. “I can teach some of the younger guys in our ways. I want to be someone who has answers for the guys coming up.”
When you watch the Steelers warm up before their OTAs and minicamp practices, you could often see Highsmith and Watt work together on their own. They would do anything from hand technique to agility drills, and have grown in their bond and chemistry as teammates.
Highsmith will tell anyone who asks that Watt has been a big part of his progression.
“He’s always the same guy,” Highsmith said of Watt. “He just comes to work every day. He’s the same as me in that he just tries to get one percent better every day. It’s awesome to learn from him as teammates. I try to take more and more from his game. He’s the best at his craft so I want to learn as much as I can from him and guys like Cam and Tyson (Alualu.)”
But a new face to the organization has also helped Highsmith in senior defensive assistant Brian Flores. Teammates like Terrell Edmunds classify Flores’ coaching approach to being “a bulldog,” while others like Myles Jack describe him as “stoic,” and “detailed.”
For Higshmith, it’s a similar learning experience.
“He’s been great so far,” Highsmith said of Flores. “He’s so knowledgeable. You can see right away why he’s been a head coach in this league. For him to be in the linebacker room and to interact with him on a daily basis, I’ve already learned so much from him. He’s so intelligent and that’s why he’s such a great coach. We’ve learned a lot from him and we’re not even in training camp yet.”
If Highsmith maintains or improves his run defense while the detail in his pass rush increases, it could make for the NFL’s most dangerous edge pair with Watt. The third-year linebacker out of Charlotte already grew quickly into being a role player for the Steelers’ defense. If he continues to ascend to being a star, Omar Khan might have a big question about how much to pay Highsmith.
Watt already makes the most on the team, and with other big-name player looking for major contracts like Minkah Fitzpatrick, paying Highsmith for being a second stud edge defender could be tricky. Dupree only got six sacks or more once in his first four seasons with the Steelers and still ended up with a massive contract worth $82.5 million from the Titans with $33.75 million guaranteed.