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Steelers EDGE Overview: T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith Are Here to Stay

The Pittsburgh Steelers have their stars on the outside, but they also have some promising backups this season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' 90-man roster is set as we approach training camp in Latrobe. Their edge defender group looks to be one of the league's best from top to bottom, with Defensive Player of the Year candidates and more known commodities in the form of depth. 

In order for the Steelers' defense to reach its ceiling, this group will have to fulfill their potential. 

Starters: T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith

After years of elite play, T.J. Watt finally secured Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2021, but last season was undoubtedly a frustrating one for the Steelers star. Watt tore his pec in Week 1, had knee surgery during his rehab, and missed seven games altogether. Even upon his return, Watt’s effectiveness rushing the passer declined as he was clearly less than 100%, posting his lowest pressure rate (12.2%, according to Sports Info Solutions) of his career. Still, Watt’s arrival sparked a Steelers' win streak that nearly put them back in the postseason.

Turning 29 years old in October, Watt is in the prime of his career and is the unquestioned best player on Pittsburgh’s roster. Health permitting, there’s nothing stopping Watt from putting himself back in the Defensive Player of the Year race once again. He’s a borderline unstoppable pass rusher off the edge, with several go-to moves, including his cross-chop and ghost moves. Even beyond that, Watt’s a complete player who makes his presence felt in the run game as well. Look for the former first-round pick to bounce back in a big way in the fall. 

In what was the biggest storyline of the summer, Alex Highsmith has inked a four-year extension to stay with the Steelers. The former third-round pick collected career highs in both pressures (55) and sacks (15) in 2022, according to PFF. It's not often that you find impactful, every down pass rushers in the late day two portion of the NFL Draft, but that's exactly what Pittsburgh acquired with the Charlotte product, who's gotten better each and every season of his professional career. Highsmith is an explosive speed rusher who threatens the outside corner with regularity and also possesses a dangerous inside spin counter move as a changeup.

Now the question is - do the Steelers view Highsmith as more than just "Robin" to Watt's "Batman?" 

Pittsburgh already handed out a record-setting contract to Watt just a couple of summers ago, meaning the Steelers are looking at two very productive but expensive pass rushers in the same position group. When browsing the NFL landscape, there aren't many pass-rushing duos that can compete with these two guys when both are healthy and in the lineup. With a new deal in place, Pittsburgh shows how highly they value the position, and Highsmith gets a well-deserved pay bump. 

Fighting For a Role: Markus Golden, Nick Herbig

If your nickname is the "Junkyard Dog," there's a good chance that the city of Pittsburgh is going to embrace you. While Markus Golden isn't the typical Steelers athletic freak on the edge, he comes equipped with the same red-hot motor that the defense requires from all of its defenders. After spending most of his career with the Arizona Cardinals as a starter, where he notched 47 career sacks, Golden is now slotting into an auxiliary role as a backup, similar to what the Steelers envisioned when they signed Melvin Ingram prior to the 2021 season. 

The 2022 season showed us exactly what can happen if Watt were to miss time on defense, and it isn't pretty. By bringing in Golden, the Steelers at least have a capable veteran leader who can come in and play a good chunk of the snaps, forcing offenses to at least account for his presence which wasn't the case with Watt's replacements last year. He's a solid run defender, can help keep the starters fresh late in games, and his skill set is a nice compliment to what Pittsburgh already has at the position.

The 132nd pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Nick Herbig is the latest quick-twitched pass rusher to make his way to Pittsburgh. He’s undersized by NFL standards, but he moves like he’s got a jet pack attached to his jersey, with a lightning-quick first step off of the ball as a pass rusher. The Steelers have poached many Wisconsin badger defenders in recent years, from Watt to Isaiahh Loudermilk, and they’ll be looking for Herbig to contribute in some form or fashion early on. 

There was some question about whether or not he’ll be able to play on the edge at the next level due to his size and length, but that’s likely where he’ll get his first opportunity.

Even despite playing in the 220-pound range, Herbig wasn’t a liability against the run in college, and after bulking up through the draft process, it’ll be interesting to see the potential rewards there. Wisconsin asked him to do some pretty unique things in coverage at times, where his athleticism really shined through on the field. His biggest impact in year one will likely need to come in the special teams department, but his explosiveness makes him a really intriguing player to watch throughout the preseason.

Fighting For a Spot: Quincy Roche

Originally a sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers back in 2021, Roche's stay in the city wasn't long before finding his way to New York. After two seasons of filling in sparingly off the bench, Roche has made his way back to Pittsburgh. He joins a pretty loaded group, which makes his odds of making the 53-man roster a bit bleak, but he does come with some experience at his disposal. Roche was a sack master in college who was ultra-productive throughout his career, but we'll have to see if his second stay in Pittsburgh is longer than his first.

Fighting For a Practice Squad Spot: David Perales, Toby Ndukwe

David Perales signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent. Following his transfer to Fresno State in 2020, Perales' production increased over the final three years of his college career, ending it with back-to-back double-digit sack seasons. Perales isn't the biggest or most athletic rusher, but he does showcase some bend around the edge and could be someone that the organization looks to keep moving forward.

Unlike Perales, Toby Ndukwe's pass-rushing chops are a complete wildcard in the equation after only registering a half dozen snaps over his five collegiate seasons between two schools. He also went undrafted coming out and will have a pretty significant uphill battle ahead of him. One thing working in his favor is that he comes with positional versatility, having moved around in college, and is a pretty explosive athlete with a 1006 broad jump at his pro day. 

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