Pittsburgh Steelers' linebacker poised for a breakout sophomore season

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Baltimore Ravens
Pittsburgh Steelers vs Baltimore Ravens

A cluttered schedule, injuries, lack of a run game and overall poor execution resulted in an early playoff exit for the Pittsburgh Steelers after their historic 11-0 start.

An injury, in particular, that devastated the organization was Bud Dupree tearing his ACL against Jacksonville in Week 12. Fortunately, Pittsburgh had a contingency plan: Alex Highsmith.

Bud Dupree's legacy

Dupree, 27, had just come off a career season in which he registered 11.5 sacks, 68 combined tackles and 49 solo.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Baltimore Ravens
Pittsburgh Steelers vs Baltimore Ravens

He was on pace to eclipse his remarkable 2019 season in 2020; he had eight sacks in 11 games before being sidelined for the remainder of the season, though. The injury left an enormous hole in the Steelers' front seven, eventually allowing a third-round pick out of the University of North Carolina to step up.

Heading into the 2020 NFL season, it became apparent that the Steelers' front office wasn't committed to offering Bud Dupree a long-term deal as a result because of their strapped cap situation. The plan was always to have Alex Highsmith take over Dupree's position opposite Defensive Player of the Year runner-up TJ Watt, and the rookie didn't disappoint in his first action as a starter.

Bud is heading to Tennessee with his new, well deserved five-year, $82.5 million deal, and Highsmith will assume control of his position in 2021.

The beginning of a new era

In five games, Highsmith accumulated 48 combined tackles, 30 solo, five tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception. He stuffed the stat sheet in his limited role.

Now, playing a higher percentage of snaps and understanding pro-level schemes better, the sophomore is poised to break out in 2021.

He has already been sensational throughout the first week of training camp. Reporters have been raving about his unique craft, ability to be a sponge and instinctive prowess as a pass-rusher.

Filling the Pittsburgh Steelers' void

Pittsburgh feature one of the most blitz-heavy pass-rush attacks in the NFL. After the 2018 season, the Steelers blitzed 36.1% of the time. In 2019, they revved that up to 38.5%. In 2020 that percentage shot up exponentially as the defense blitzed on 57.8% of snaps, resulting in a league-leading 56 total sacks.

The Steel Curtain led the league by a wide margin, with a pressure rate of 45.6%. The closest team to Pittsburgh was the Buffalo Bills, and they barely managed to surpass 30%. Their pressure rate when they were not blitzing was 36.8%

Nevertheless, Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler have continuously put their front seven in position to dominate. Alex Highsmith, along with these defensive schemes, completely complement the other.

The promising young star will line up with TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, which should make his life easier and the transition from second-string to starter seamless.

As a raw prospect, he has already proven he can contribute at a high level. Now with a year under his belt and a full off-season with the Black and Yellow, he's on track to emulate, if not eclipse, Bud Dupree's performance with the Steelers.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Arizona Cardinals
Pittsburgh Steelers vs Arizona Cardinals

Entering only his second season, Alex Highsmith has some huge shoes to fill, but he appears ready to take on the enormous task in a pivotal year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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