Aside from Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers had arguably their best defensive performance of the year this past weekend against the New Orleans Saints. Yes, the Saints’ offense doesn’t offer the most diverse star power the league has to offer, but whenever a team is kept under two touchdowns, the defense has done an excellent job regardless of the opposition. One of the key players in those two games was LB Alex Highsmith, who was arguably the most impressive and surprising defender of the first half of the season.
Last week, he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his game against New Orleans and could easily have been honored in Week 1 for his three-sack performance. DC Teryl Austin spoke earlier today about Highsmith’s rise this year as well as his under-the-radar status nationally.
“Early on at camp there was a lot of questions about whether he could be a double figure slob,” Austin said, according to the team transcript. “He thought he could, I know he said he could, and he’s working towards that … it’s the way he works and the way he goes about his business.”
Not only is Highsmith working toward double-digit sacks, he’s also currently on track to have 16 of them, which would be 10 more than last season. For what it’s worth, his performances were highly correlated with LB TJ Watt’s health as his only two games with at least two sacks were the two games Watt was active in. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to assume his game will be aided by a healthy Watt, as Watt is attracting attention for a blocking scheme. Therefore, it is crucial that he was able to exploit these discrepancies. Despite his impressive numbers, his game doesn’t seem to have gotten the recognition it deserves from the national media.
“We know his value to us and what he means to us, and we really appreciate the type of player he is,” Austin said. “We really don’t care what they feel outside of this building.”
This weekend’s rematch against Cincinnati will be another challenge, but one that the Steelers handled perfectly to start the season. While the Steelers offense needs to show the same promise and consistency as last weekend, defense will be key if Pittsburgh is able to stage another upset against the Bengals, this time at home. As always, the ability to pressure the quarterback and create splash plays will decide the game that Highsmith has proven he has a knack for.