With T.J. Watt out, Alex Highsmith emerged as a leader in week 17.
Alex Highsmith started the 2020 regular season as the No. 4 outside linebacker and special teams player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He quickly moved to special teams ace, and then took over the No. 3 outside linebacker spot. By week 12 Highsmith was taking the vast majority of rotational snaps at outside linebacker, and had joined Jordan Dangerfield as the leading special teams players on the team. That week Bud Dupree was lost for the season, and Highsmith became the Steelers starting outside linebacker on the right side.
He held that job down well. He was a clear drop off from Bud Dupree, but he was doing really well for a rookie.
In Week 17 he faced a stalwart Cleveland offensive line, one that ranked 2nd in the NFL in pass block win rate (according to ESPN), and boasted a top 5 run game. He did so without T.J. Watt, and without his defensive tackle, Cameron Heyward. He wasn’t the weakest link in the line, he was suddenly the only real edge rusher the Steelers had, facing one of the toughest matchups the Steelers would see all season.
Let’s look at the tape
The opening drive
The first defensive drive of the game for the Steelers defense wasn’t a good one, it ended with a Nick Chubb 47 yard touchdown run, and before that gained 38 yards on 5 plays. It’s a good chance to see Alex Highsmith when things weren’t going great, partly because the Browns went right at him, the side of the field missing Cameron Heyward.
1st quarter, 12:10. Alex Highsmith (#56) is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.
Highsmith gets caught too far inside and he sees Nick Chubb heading outside (or at least faking it), so he starts to switch sides, he puts his free inside arm back on the blocker and moves outside a bit as he starts to work his outside arm free when he realizes Chubb has played him, and he gets back inside and gets both hands on Chubb. Nick Chubb gained 11 yards on this run, but at the moment Chubb is free of the first two defenders to swarm to the ball, and before the second wave gets there Chubb is churning his legs but barely gaining ground. It is hard to see in this small image, but the reason is Alex Highsmith still has both hands on Chubb, and he stays on him until he is dragged down.
There wasn’t much help from the rest of the defensive line on this play, and Highsmith lost initially, but he recovered and helped contain a run that could have gone the whole length of the field.
1st quarter, 11:25. Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the right side of the screen
First thing I want you to notice is the tiny step Highsmith makes when the motion passes him. he changes his leverage there, and plays this run perfectly. He gets inside position on his blocker, driving the blocker wide. He is using his blocker to mess with any outside lane while keeping himself inside. Highsmith then evades the pulling guard and brings down Nick Chubb by himself at the line of scrimmage. Chubb sees Highsmith has destroyed the run play and tries to cut back, but Highsmith again holds on.
The Browns come back to the same gap, this time with a pulling guard, but Highsmith isn’t taking an “L” twice, and it’s second and 10.
This is Bud Dupree level run defense (sorry Bud, I love you and I will miss you next year).
1st quarter, 11:25. Alex Highsmith is the slot defender, second from the top of the screen. You heard right, he’s lined up across from Jarvis Landry. Go type your Fire Keith Butler comments now, the film will wait for you.
So rookie outside linebacker vs. the Browns top receiver in man defense. EXACTLY HOW THIS DEFENSE IS DESIGNED TO WORK. The Browns give Landry help in the form of a rub from the tight end, and Landry gains 14 yards. Highsmith does a good job staying with Landry here and limiting the yards after catch. The Steelers dodge a bullet and clearly won’t ever do that again.
1st quarter, 10:45. Alex HIghsmith is the slot defender, second from the top of the screen. Yep. On Landry again.
Before you go add another comment to the Fire Keith Butler festival in the comments section, you might want to appreciate that Alex Highmsith shuts down Jarvis Landry on this route. Sure Minkah Fitzpatrick is clearly helping bracket Landry, but Highsmith does a great job.
Also, seriously, we need to accept that this is a part of the Steelers defense, and if you look at the advanced stats the passer rating against for Highsmith is the best on the team, and T.J. Watt joins him with a better passer rating against than Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Combined, Watt, Dupree and Highsmith were in coverage for 102 snaps in 2020, they were credited with a target 18 times, with 10 completions for 88 yards and a TD. So. . . maybe the Steelers need to resign Dupree and use their outside linebackers as cornerbacks?
I’m kidding. When teams go empty with heavier personnel the Steelers leverage Minkah Fitzpatrick like this. Sure you have your best receiver on a linebacker, but if that route goes very deep at all it’s all Minkah Fitzpatrick. And where Highsmith is, Fitzpatrick can cover a deep half and bracket Landry. Keep the linebackers inside, use your amazing safety to make what should be a terrible mismatch largely unexploitable, while making every other matchup easier for the Steelers defenders.
1st quarter, 10:20. Alex Highsmith (#56) is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.
Alex Highsmith is not T.J. Watt. He isn’t as good as Watt has become setting up Mike Hilton’s slot blitz. He steps wide to get that 1v1 with the tackle look, but at the snap he does nothing to sell it and the tackle can commit fully to Hilton. This is where Highsmith’s limitations come in. He’s already an NFL starter-level edge defender when he’s doing his own thing, even when that thing is covering Jarvis Landry in the slot. But when it comes to setting up other players with a fake move, or in this case, starting his rush wide and then crashing in hard like T.J. Watt does so well, not as great.
He also runs into a problem here that we see with him and Cameron Heyward occasionally, toward the end of the rush, as the throw is made, you can see Highsmith is actually getting in the way of Stephon Tuitt. Hilton’s blitzes aren’t just about getting a DB a free run at the quarterback, they create 1v1 blocks along that entire side, and even without Highsmith making life hard for anyone to determine who to block here, Stephon Tuitt beats the center, only to run into Highsmith.
That’s the kind of stuff you need to learn through experience, T.J. Watt took time, Highsmith is going to take time to get all that down.
Now that I think I’ve done a good job of showing exactly where Alex Highsmith is in his game right now, let’s get to the fun stuff.
Alex Highsmith was the Steelers defense.
The play after the ones above was the touchdown run by Nick Chubb, that I won’t show you simply because it is a long clip that I can sum up for the purpose of this film room by saying they ran away from Highsmith. throughout most of the game it went that way, the Browns had success when they avoided Alex Highsmith, at least among the front 7.
Avoiding him was easier said than done.
2nd quarter, 10:34. Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the top of the screen.
Highsmith weaponizes Stephen Carlson (#89) and blocks Nick Chubbs’ run lane for a rare tackle for a loss. It would set up 3rd and goal.
2nd quarter, 9:53. Alex Highsmith is the edge to the top of the screen.
That beautiful spin move from Highsmith and the pocket crushing Stephon Tuitt force an early throw from Mayfield that is incomplete and the Browns settle for a field goal.
The Browns have a first and goal and Alex Highsmith wrecks two of their three shots at getting a touchdown.
2nd quarter, 0:57. Alex HIghsmith is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.
Cleveland sends a tight end and the left tackle at Highsmith, but Baker Mayfield drops ten yards behind the line of scrimmage and Highsmith breaks out the ghost move (fakes a left arm stab then ducks under the tackle’s arms) for the sack. This play convinced the Browns to run the clock out and end the half.
3rd quarter, 13:42. Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.
I love this play, not just because of the sack, but watch Highsmith, he reads the play action, then disengages to attack the reverse rollout that Baker Mayfield does so well, and Jayrone Elliott tags him down for a sack. this was on first down, and the drive would end 3 plays later with a false start on 4th and 1 convincing the Browns to punt. Those lost yards were huge.
4th quarter, 09:24, Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the bottom of the screen.
Highsmith is blocked by a tight end on this play. That tight end is promptly discarded, and Highsmith stops this run at 1 yard. One of the stories of the second half was the Browns getting away from their run game, and plays like this on first down played a role in convincing the Browns to pass more.
4th quarter, 4:25. Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the bottom of the screen.
Jedrick Wills gets destroyed by Highsmith’s spin move on this play, Mayfield is forced to scramble and Stephon Tuitt picks up his eleventh sack of the season. The Browns would go for it on 4th down and fail, and the Steelers would drive down the field and score, ending up a 2-pt conversion from tying the game. Wills was the 10th pick in the 2020 draft, and he’s been really good all season, but Alex Highsmith (selected 92 picks later) got the better of him frequently in week 17.
Almost every drive that ended without a Browns touchdown did so, in large part, because of a big defensive play from Alex Highsmith. Highsmith led the Steelers in tackles and recorded a sack. Beyond that he created pressure that led to 2 more sacks, created tackles for loss, and forced Baker Mayfield to make hurried throws numerous times in big moments. That kind of play is something you see from truly great players. In the wild card game the Steelers are expected to play Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt, and they should be a big boost to the Steelers defense, but the Browns, and the rest of the NFL, are going to sweating playing the Steelers a little more knowing the player opposite T.J. Watt is coming into his own.