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Steelers All 90: Alex Highsmith Expects Defense to be Elite

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Steelers OLB Alex Highsmith

The Pittsburgh Steelers have always been known for their superior defense and Alex Highsmith expects the team to regain that form of dominance in 2023. While Highsmith enjoyed a career year last season, the defense was without its most important piece for a majority of the season.

The defense played well in the absence of T.J. Watt last season but according to Highsmith, if they can stay healthy in 2023, the Steelers can have the “best” defense in the league.

“I know 100% we can be the best defense in the NFL, especially if we all stay healthy,” Highsmith said. “I am excited about the guys that we have. We have depth at almost every position. It’s been good seeing guys come together and get better and better every day. The sky is the limit for us.”

The Steelers added a large group of free-agent defenders this offseason to improve the roster and fill areas of need. Such players include Patrick Peterson, Elandon Roberts, and Keanu Neal, among others. Highsmith stated that with these additions, the team can really build off of the late-season success that they enjoyed in 2022.

“We have so many good players,” said Highsmith. “We have so many guys who are dedicated to this game. Last year we started playing our best ball at the end of the year. If we can build on that, we can be the best. That is what I believe because we have a lot of guys who have bought in and are talented as well.”

The Steelers went 7-2 down the stretch in 2022 and barely missed out on the playoffs. If Highsmith can build off of the immense success that he enjoyed in 2022 and the other additions can mesh well, then he may be right, there may not be a ceiling of how elite the Steelers’ defense can be in 2023.

Nonetheless, Highsmith should continue to improve individually this season as he is entering the first contract season of his career.

56 • Alex Highsmith, Outside Linebacker, Charlotte
6-foot-4, 242 pounds, 25 years old, 4th Season

Acquired: The Steelers drafted Highsmith with the 102nd overall pick in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Last seasonHighsmith took his game to another level last season when the Steelers needed it the most. After T.J. Watt went down with an injury in Week 1 and missed the next eight weeks, Highsmith showed that he could be effective by himself.

Highsmith started the year fast as he sacked Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow three times in the team’s Week 1 overtime victory. He collected his second multi-sack game of the season in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints as he recorded two tackles, two sacks, and four pressures. His third came in in Week 18 against the Cleveland Browns as he tallied five tackles, six pressures, and three sacks.

He started all 17 games for the Steelers and finished the season with 60 combined tackles, 55 quarterback pressures, and a career-high 14.5 sacks.

Steelers Alex Highsmith

Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith (56) rushes Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) at Acrisure Stadium.

Career: After the Steelers selected Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, he was a backup to Bud Dupree in his first NFL season. Highsmith appeared in all 16 games for the Steelers and made five starts. He finished his rookie season with 42 tackles, two sacks, 21 pressures, and one interception. He recorded his first interception in Week 8 against the Baltimore Ravens and the next week he tallied his first NFL sack against the Dallas Cowboys.

Steelers Tom Brady

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith (56) forces a fumble as he hits Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

In 2021, Highsmith became the full-time starter opposite of Watt and began to show why the Steelers used a third-round draft selection on him. He started all 16 games that he played in and finished the year with a career-high 65 combined tackles and six sacks. He pressured the quarterback 35 times in 2021. This effort cemented him as the starter going into the 2022 season.

Year GP GS Tackles Sacks Pressures INTs PFF Rating
2020 16 5 42 2.0 21 1 72.0
2021 16 16 65 6.0 35 0 67.2
2022 17 17 60 14.5 55 0 78.0

CollegeAfter a strong career at Eugene Ashley High School in North Carolina, Highsmith walked on at the University of Charlotte where he would redshirt during his freshman season. In 2016, Highsmith would appear in 12 games as a redshirt freshman and finished the year with 17 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack. He recorded one start in 2016.

In 2017, Highsmith stayed as a rotational piece for the 49ers’ defense as he played in 11 games but did not record a start. He finished the year with 33 combined tackles, five tackles for loss, and two sacks.

Highsmith took a massive leap forward in his first year starting full-time at Charlotte. In 2018, Highsmith started all 12 games and finished the year with 60 combined tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and two forced fumbles. He broke the school’s record for tackles for loss in a single season in 2018. After the season, Highsmith was named first-team all-Conference USA.

In his final year at Charlotte, Highsmith took another leap forward. He started all 13 games and finished the year with career-highs in tackles with 75, tackles for loss with 21.5, and sacks with 14. Highsmith broke the school’s record for sacks in a game when he recorded 4.5 sacks against Old Dominion. He finished his collegiate career as the school’s all-time leader in sacks. He was also a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded to the top collegiate player who started as a walk-on.

Year GP GS Tackles TFLs Sacks FFs
2016 12 1 17 2.0 1.0 0
2017 11 0 33 5.0 2.0 0
2018 12 12 60 17.5 3.0 2
2019 13 13 75 21.5 14.0 1

Salary cap and future: Highsmith is entering the final season of his standard four-year rookie contract that he signed after the team drafted him in 2020. Highsmith will cost $2.95 million against the Steelers’ cap space in 2023. His 2023 cap hit includes a $2.74 million base salary and a $208,073 prorated bonus. He is set to become a free agent for the first time following this season.

Highsmith has been productive since becoming a starter in 2021 and the Steelers are likely to try to extend him or place the franchise tag on him before next season, as they did with Bud Dupree before letting him eventually walk in free agency.

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