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Robin to Batman: Steelers Need Elite Play Out of Alex Highsmith



Steelers OLB Alex Highsmith
Steelers OLB Alex Highsmith against the Arizona Cardinals, Dec. 7, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — The week’s talk on the Steelers’ defense concerns Nick Herbig and Markus Golden. Makes sense. T.J. Watt is out, and those will be his replacements. But Alex Highsmith is equally as important to how this defense will function up front while defending the run and trying to get after Josh Allen.

Highsmith has done well this year as the Robin to Watt’s Batman. He has less sacks, but his pressure rate is up, and in general, his tape is better. The bag for Highsmith has expanded dramatically as he has added more counters and polished up the moves he already had in his bag. But it can be tough for a pass rusher when the sacks are not coming out directly. So, Highsmith has made his presence felt even in coverage. But the Steelers are not concerned with only seven sacks on the sheet in 2023.

“I think Alex is a pro. He understands that sometimes the sacks are there, sometimes they’re not,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “We know how valuable he is. The guy can get sacks, but he’s gotten interceptions for us and done multiple things for us. He knows his value, and he is not underrated in our room. And I think he’s got enough character and heart to stick with it and understand that, hey, sometimes they just go — they come in bunches. He didn’t get them as much as he would like, but he’s really done a good job.”

Alex Highsmith is due for a bunch of sacks. But that was with Watt. Last year without Watt, he was good, but not great. So, when the tape this year has looked as good as it has been and Highsmith has frankly been a monster, can he take the next step up without Watt?

It’s all about a mindset. Highsmith will face a very good left tackle in Dion Dawkins. But it’s not the toughest matchup of the year (that would be Trent Williams), and Highsmith has shown his ability to win consistently against even good tackles. He’s a matchup terror, and will now get the attention on him. It’s up to the Steelers and Highsmith to work off that together.

“You know, there’s other ways I step up,” Highsmith said. “But I just have to play my game and work hard. I know what I am capable of doing. As long as I keep my head down, the splash plays will come.”

Watt had 19 sacks this season and set a modern NFL record as the first player to lead the league in sacks for a third time since it became an official statistic back in the early 1980s. Deacon Jones of the Los Angeles Rams unofficially led the league in sacks five times the 1960s.

Without him, it’s Highsmith’s turn to become Batman. Can he do it in a game where the stakes are at their highest? If he does, it will significantly help Pittsburgh’s chances of pulling off a shocking upset.