PITTSBURGH — One of the first things Denzel Martin remembers telling Alex Highsmith when he first stepped on the practice field a few years back is that “the spin isn’t for everybody.”
Surely, that’s not what the wide-eyed rookie wanted to hear from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ outside linebackers coach.
Highsmith loved to do the spin move just as much as he liked to do the cross-chop during his rookie year, and he really liked the chop. And, if we are going to be honest here, neither was very pretty or all that effective.
Highsmith’s cross-chop was so awkward the first few years that Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt would do everything not to just laugh in his face … yet they did.
The spin move got much better as the years went on, but even during last year’s breakout season, something wasn’t right.
Despite collecting 14.5 sacks, fourth-most in the Steelers’ storied history, Highsmith noticed near the end of the season that tackles were anticipating the spin move — which he considers his “fastball.”
Highsmith managed only 3.5 sacks over a seven-game stretch — being shut out three times, including twice against the Ravens — before breaking out with 2.5 in the season finale against the Browns.
“That’s when I knew I had to get better at it,” Highsmith said. “You can’t live in this league with one move. You have to have a counter move that is just as good as your main move, so I worked on getting better at it.”
Highsmith was on a mission to improve his spin move. He works on it before, after and during practice. You can say he’s almost obsessed with perfecting it.
In reality, it’s nothing major other than the nuances associated with the move that make it very difficult to defend. The key is to not let the tackle know it is coming. After that, it’s a matter of technique, like chopping the hands down and then ripping across to spin to the inside.
“It is all about what the tackle is giving him,” Martin said. “You aren’t going to spin at any time. There have to be moments to set it up. That’s what we always talk about. You are telling a story to the offensive linemen. How you tell that and how you manipulate that is how you win.”
Alex Highsmith hitting the sled. pic.twitter.com/4i2QLCP5PK
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) September 4, 2023
If done correctly, there is no real counter. At worst, it keeps the tackle honest so he can’t sit on any one move.
“Alex is the spin master, that is what he does. He enjoys spinning,” Martin said. “You have to have good feet to do it. He works on it every single day. Once he spins, he’s back on his feet like a cat and can make a play.”
Highsmith is not quite at the level of the all-time bests like Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and DeMarcus Ware, but he’s working his way toward having one of the better spins in the league.
“He’s had that for a couple of years now, and he is doing it well and it’s effective,” Watt said. “It’s good to have an inside changeup. I think he may be nit-picking a little bit saying he needs to get much better. The spin was there last year, and it is again this year.”
Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin called it “lethal.”
“I will say that,” Austin said. “But, really, the thing he’s doing — like most great players and guys who strive to be great — is working at his craft. He’s trying to get better at all the things he does. He knows he does it well and does it well enough. I think that’s a testament to him and his ability and his want to be a great player.”
Highsmith will see right away how much his offseason work has helped.
The Steelers held a “get right” practice Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, leading up to Sunday’s opener against arguably the best team in the NFC (the San Francisco 49ers) and indisputably the best left tackle in the NFL, Trent Williams.
Highsmith has not missed one practice since the team first gathered for phase one of the offseason in early April. He signed a new five-year deal worth $70 million in late July and has been locked in to prove he’s worth it, especially with Watt on a four-year, $112 million deal on the other side.
Overlooked no more, Steelers OLB Alex Highsmith isn’t easing up after big payday
“The contract didn’t change who I am, it didn’t change my work ethic,” Highsmith said. “That’s just who I am as a person. I am a guy who shows up to practice every day and goes to work to get better. I am out there grinding. If they are going to give me a day off, then I will take it. That’s just who I am. I want to be out there and get better. I feel good and I am ready to go.”
Highsmith will be tested on Sunday.
Williams earned back-to-back first-team All-Pro honors. You have to go back to the 2020 season (more than 35 games, including the playoffs) to find the last time Williams allowed a sack, per STATS charting. Pro Football Focus had Williams allowing one sack and 15 pressures in 2022, as he was their highest-rated offensive lineman in the league.
“It is going to be a good test,” Highsmith said.
Another good test is whether Highsmith can stand on his own and show he can produce with or without Watt on the field.
Last year, Highsmith had 5.5 sacks without Watt on the field (including Watt’s seven-game absence) and nine sacks with him on the field, suggesting that Watt’s extra attention leads to Highsmith’s success. That said, Highsmith’s 55 pressures were split more evenly: 30 with Watt off the field, 25 with him on.
Alex Highsmith played a similar number of snaps with T.J. Watt last year (441) as without Watt (463). Here are the stats, per Tru Media.
(Note: that this also accounts for games Watt was healthy but not on the field). pic.twitter.com/cCGZovumcc
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) July 19, 2023
“I told him I don’t care if T.J. is here or not, he still has to be the No. 1,” Martin said. “If it is 1A, I don’t care. He has to come and bring it. He has to be Batman all the time. He can’t be looking around to be Robin.”
Vegas oddsmakers see it the other way. They have Watt’s over/under at 13.75 sacks and Highsmith’s at 9.75.
“It is what it is,” Highsmith said. “My goal is to surpass what I did last year. … If anything, it is more motivation and fuel. I try not to listen to the outside noise. I focus on what I can do. I wanted that double-digit mark last year and got that. Now I want to do more than I did last year.”
(Photo: Mark Konezny / USA Today)