One of the most enduring of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s famous saying has been “next man up.”
That mantra will be put to the test in a big way for the Steelers defense, as Tomlin confirmed on Thursday that outside linebacker Bud Dupree will miss the rest of the season with a “significant” knee injury suffered Wednesday evening against the Baltimore Ravens.
The next man up will be rookie outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. In 11 professional games since the Steelers drafted him out of UNC Charlotte in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Highsmith has recorded 20 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack. Thus far, Highsmith has worked as a rotational backup to Dupree and T.J. Watt, and also as the fifth linebacker in a 2-5 package the Steelers have been using. Now, Tomlin is expecting him to step up into a starting role, and he’s confident he’ll be able to.
“I’m just as comfortable and confident as I was in Robert Spillane when we called upon him, or Kevin Dotson, when we called upon him on the other side of the ball,” Tomlin said on Thursday. “That’s life in this business. Those guys work behind the scenes every day, very diligently preparing themselves for these opportunities, not only in terms of knowing what to do, but just preparing themselves in terms of conditioning for when we ring their bell.
“And we are ringing Alex Highsmith’s bell now, so it will be exciting to watch him respond to it. But it’ll also be exciting to watch his growth, because growth is associated with experience, and no doubt in the upcoming weeks, he’s going to be gaining a lot of that.”
Part of Tomlin’s confidence stems from the fact that while Highsmith is a rookie, he’s an older, more experienced player than most NFL rookies.
“In the interview process, I was really impressed with his maturity,” Tomlin said. “But you know, that’s not surprising given that he was a fifth-year senior. Oftentimes, we’re not drafting a lot of fifth-year seniors these days, so he had a maturity level that was beyond where he is in this process. But he’s probably older than most rookies.”
At 23, Highsmith is older that fellow rookies Chase Claypool and Anthony McFarland Jr. and is even older than second-year players Justin Layne and Benny Snell and third-year players Ola Adeniyi and Chukwuma Okorafor.
So while the Steelers will be leaning on an inexperienced linebacker, they won’t necessarily be leaning on an immature one.