The Steelers outside linebackers have been retooled, but can they improve upon a dominate 2020 campaign?
The strength of the Steelers team starts with their front seven on defense. From dominating defensive tackles, to sideline-to-sideline inside linebackers, they have a lot going for them. But it’s the Steelers edge rushers that get a lot of the spotlight (and deservedly so). The Steelers are used to receiving double-digit sack production from their outside backers, and in 2021 that isn’t supposed to change. However, the Steelers are only returning two edge rushers from the 2020 team to this year’s iteration. Thankfully those two guys are T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. But with such a large roster turnover, today I pose the question of whether this year’s edge rushers are better than what we saw in 2020.
T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree (Week 1-11), Alex Highsmith, Ola Adeniyi, Cassius Marsh (Week 12-WC)
T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Melvin Ingram, Jamir Jones
In this comparison I will only factor in the 2020 Steelers linebackers from their peak, as injuries haven’t (and hopefully wont) hit this group. First and foremost, T.J. Watt is T.J. Watt. He’s the best player on the Steelers team and voted the top overall linebacker by his fellow linebackers across the NFL. He will be just as good (if not better) this year and shouldn’t be a guy Steelers fans need to worry about.
The position of replacing Bud Dupree will really fall on two guys shoulders, Alex Highsmith, and Melvin Ingram. Starting things off, let’s look at the sophomore player in Highsmith. After being thrown into the fire following Dupree’s ACL tear in 2020, Highsmith received valuable reps and experience in the following five weeks. Coming into camp in 2021, Highsmith clearly knew what he had to work on and not only was he arguably the best player practicing throughout camp, but he was noticeably bigger, faster, and stronger on gamedays. Highsmith will be leaps and bounds ahead of what we saw last year, and while he likely won’t be as dominate in run defense as Dupree was, there’s a chance he’ll put up better pass rushing numbers than Dupree ever did.
As for Melvin Ingram, he will be tasked to be the Steelers third edge rusher, playing 30-50% of the total defensive snaps in relief of Watt and Highsmith, and will also likely see time as an inside linebacker hybrid. Ingram has been bitten by the injury bug in recent years, however he appears to be back at 100% health, and was often viewed as a top performer throughout training camp. Ingram will be a big improvement over former number 3 edge rushers. He could prove himself enough in 2021 to earn one last starting gig elsewhere before he decides to hang up his cleats.
Winding things down with the reserve players, and we can compare Jamir Jones with Ola Adeniyi and Cassius Marsh, the former of which Jones just pushed off the Steelers roster. We can also face it whenever Adeniyi was on the field for defense you knew the Steelers weren’t going to have as much pressure on the quarterback. Although it will sound a bit premature, I feel better about having Jones on the field than I ever did about Adeniyi. The special teams’ contributions of Adeniyi may end up being more noticeable than what we will get out of Jones, but Jamir Jones still made the team off his merits as a special teamer first and a linebacker second.
My verdict, I think this year’s Steelers edge rushers are a deeper unit that could apply even more heat against opposing quarterbacks. They may have a harder time defending the run than they did in 2020, but I really like how this group has been constructed. When the Steelers roll with all three of the top guys on the field, they will be menacing to the opposition. Between Watt, Highsmith, and Ingram I would expect a big year from the guys on the outside.
But what do you think? Could the Steelers edge rushers outperform what they did in the 2020 season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.