COOK: Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have found another gem in linebacker Alex Highsmith

RON COOK
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith (56) attempts to run past Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (71) during an NFL football game on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Kirk Irwin)

Mike Tomlin was ticked, angrier than he had ever been after a game.

He wasn't the least bit amused by the uniqueness of the 3:40 kickoff between the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens on a Wednesday afternoon in early December. He barely seemed to notice that his team won, 19-14, to go to 11-0.

Who will ever forget Tomlin's biting response when asked what troubled him most about the Steelers' lousy performance against a Ravens team that was beaten almost beyond recognition by COVID-19?

"Us sucking."

OK, then.

Tomlin had good reasons to be agitated. He didn't like being outcoached and outplayed in every phase of the game. But I think there was more to his irritation. I think most of it came from an injury that happened late in that game:

Bud Dupree's torn ACL injury.

I'm convinced, in that moment, Tomlin was thinking the Steelers' perfect start eventually would lead to nowhere instead of to the Super Bowl.

I know I was thinking that.

Next man up: Fortunately for Tomlin and the Steelers, the next man up stepped in, put his hand in the pile and made sure the standard remained the standard.

That dadgum Alex Highsmith has been pretty good, right, Keith Butler?

"I've never worried about Alex," Butler said. "I'm glad we have him."

And the best part?

"He's going to be better or get better the more and more he plays," Butler said.

Solid performances: Highsmith showed that in the 28-24 win against the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 27. He had seven tackles and two quarterback hits. His pressure of quarterback Philip Rivers led to a Mike Hilton interception in the fourth quarter.

Highsmith showed even more in the 24-22 loss to the Cleveland Brownson Sunday. He had nine tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit and a tackle for loss. He forced quarterback Baker Mayfield up in the pocket and into a sack by Stephon Tuitt in the fourth quarter.

That might not be Dupree-like, but it has been enough to make you think the Steelers at least have a chance to do some damage in the playoffs.

Didn't see it coming: I'll admit, I didn't see it coming even though Highsmith had made one of the Steelers' most significant defensive plays of the season, intercepting a pass from Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson on Baltimore's first play of the third quarter and helping the team turn a 17-7 deficit into a 28-24 win Nov. 1.

Highsmith averaged just 12 1/2 snaps a game before Dupree's injury. He has played 60, 68, 53, 58 and 60 in the five games since.

Yes, that's putting a hand in the pile.

Asking the right questions: Not bad for a guy who was drafted in the third round out of Charlotte, which isn't exactly Alabama or Ohio State.

"He's always come to work ready to grow and get better," T.J. Watt said. "That's the thing with him. He's always asking the right questions."

Highsmith certainly isn't afraid to ask 'em of Watt, the Steelers' MVP and the presumptive NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Dupree, who still is around the team during his rehab. He said it is "awesome" to learn from both.

"I felt like I was prepared going into first game [without Dupree]," Highsmith said. "They just told me to be my best self. Just going out there and doing it for Bud. This is the moment I've prayed for my whole life, to be able to play on this stage."

Bigger and better things ahead? Watt predicted bigger and better things for Highsmith.

"You're going to continue to see that growth as the game continues to slow down for him," he said.

Highsmith loved hearing that.

"It doesn't matter what I did so far," he said. "It matters what I do coming up."