For the better part of four decades, this is what the Steelers have done on defense.
Since first installing the 3-4 defense in 1982, the Steelers have had a problem in the talent acquisition department: not that many colleges use the same scheme that has become a staple in Pittsburgh.
In order to get the most talented players, the Steelers have frequently taken to drafting college players that played one position and then shifting them to another.
No place has that pattern happened more than at outside linebacker, where the Steelers have thrived on taking college defensive ends and turning them into multi-faceted defenders.
That will be the case with Alex Highsmith, who the Steelers selected with the 102nd pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on Friday.
Highsmith, a 6-foot-3, 248-pounder, played end in what was actually a 4-2-5 permanent Nickel scheme at Charlotte, and that’s a perfect fit for the Steelers. The Steelers’ nickel was their most-played defense in 2019, and it features just two defensive linemen — ideally Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt — and outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt walked up to the line of scrimmage as pure edge rushers, rarely being asked to drop into coverage.
That’s exactly what Highsmith excels at. He ranked fourth in the country in 2019 with 14 sacks and was fifth with 21.5 tackles for loss. The pass rush it where Highsmith excels.
“We have three Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in the AFC North,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said after drafting Highsmith. “We have to have guys to hunt them.”
Highsmith performed linebacker drills at the 2020 NFL Combine, but that was his first real experience at the position after playing end at Charlotte. So he’ll be expectedly raw in coverage. But he told Steelers Now at the combine that he was fine with going to either a 3-4 or 4-3 squad.
“The big thing [teams are] talking to me is about whether I’m more comfortable as a 4-3 defensive end or an outside linebacker,” Highsmith said. “I told them I’d be fine with either one. You still rush the passer.
“I’ve been working on [coverage] a good bit. … I’ve been working with a d-line coach and a linebackers coach. I’ve been working on my drops, working on opening my hips because scouts said they want to see me move in space and see how athletic I am.”
Highsmith’s pass-rushing ability is what made him a top prospect, despite coming from a small school in Charlotte that plays in the prestige-lacking Conference USA.
“I think people underestimate me a small-school guy,” Highsmith said. “I want to show people that I can play with the best of them.”