Bud Dupree ACL injury leaves undefeated Steelers with more obvious questions than emphatic answers

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin typically relies upon a few pet phrases to carry him through his interactions with the public — through the media, of course — that have become part of the lexicon in the Pittsburgh region.

There’s even a breakfast burrito at one of my favorite restaurants, Dive Bar & Grill in Lawrenceville, named for the king of all Tomlincliches: “The Standard (is the Standard).”

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His expression of choice Thursday was one that he’d prefer not to have needed. When referring to the need to replace star outside linebacker Bud Dupree, lost for the season with an ACL tear during Wednesday’s victory over the Ravens, he declared, “We are ringing Alex Highsmith’s bell now.”

Which raises several questions as the Steelers try to remain the NFL’s only undefeated team, and to pursue a seventh Super Bowl championship, without a second significant starter lost from their highly regarded defense. They previously had lost inside linebacker Devin Bush for the year with a knee injury in Week 6.

Who is Alex Highsmith?

The Steelers selected Highsmith with their third-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, No. 102 overall, out of Charlotte of Conference USA. Originally a walk-on from Wilmington, N.C., he redshirted as a freshman but became a star by his junior season and a third-team All-American as a fifth-year senior, when he recorded 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss.

Tomlin said he was impressed by Highsmith’s maturity during the pre-draft interview process, while acknowledging that shouldn’t be surprising given his relatively advanced age. With so many juniors in the draft now, it’s not as often that teams are looking at picking someone approaching his 23rd birthday. Highsmith turned 23 in August; Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster is in his fourth season and has 277 career catches and turned 24 last month.

“I liked his continual growth over the course of his career that manifested itself in the form of production,” Tomlin said. “He had a really big year in ’19 at UNC Charlotte. He had a tangible, growing resume, and he had a maturity we felt would aid us if called upon in the way that he’s being called upon right now.”

Highsmith has appeared in all 11 games and made 20 tackles, including one sack and three TFLs, while playing on 20 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Dropping into coverage early in the second half in the team’s road win over the Ravens, he read Lamar Jackson’s intent and delivered a plus-territory interception that turned the game in the Steelers’ favor.

What makes Dupree so difficult to replace?

Highsmith stands 6-4 and weighs 242 pounds. That’s not bad size for an OLB in a 3-4 defense. Tampa’s Shaquille Barrett, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks last season, is only 6-2, 250.

But Dupree is 6-4, 269 pounds. And he runs a 4.56 in the 40, compared with Highsmith’s 4.7. And he has a wingspan of nearly 80 inches, compared with Highsmith’s nearly 77. Dupree has everything one could want in a pass-rushing linebacker, including the experience that turned him from frustrating prospect into a defensive terror the Steelers were willing to pay $17.8 million on the franchise tag in 2019. He also owns the institutional knowledge of one who has been in the Steelers’ defense for six seasons.

With Dupree on the right side and All-Pro T.J. Watt on the left, opponents had a difficult choice regarding which direction to send their attacks. Now, the Steelers’ D appears a bit lopsided.

Tomlin asserted, “I’m just as comfortable and confident” with Highsmith as he was with inside linebacker Robert Spillane, who replaced Bush, or rookie guard Kevin Dotson, who took over for vet David DeCastro in several early games. But the defense has lost some of its versatility with Spillane in Bush’s place. It’s hard to imagine it not losing some of its menace with Dupree absent.

“That’s life in this business,” Tomlin said, referring to the challenge of coping with injury in the NFL.

Is Highsmith the Steelers’ only alternative?

His backup will be second-year player Ola Adeniyi, who made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Toledo in 2019 because of a stellar performance in exhibition games. He has played on 10 percent of defensive snaps and has delivered 12 tackles and one TFL. He still is searching for his first career sack.

No, I mean …

Would the Steelers sign Clay Matthews? Out of football all season and insisting that he has no interest in playing for the league minimum? Matthews still was a frequent force last season for the Rams, recording eight sacks and nine TFLs while playing less than 60 percent of defensive snaps. The Steelers have the cap room, according to Spotrac , to afford a bit more than the veteran minimum, and they could offer another opportunity to chase the Super Bowl. This might be the time to spend some of that couch-cushion cash on another pass-rush option.

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Won’t Dupree’s absence make Watt’s job more challenging?

With 11 sacks and 17 TFLs — both figures at the top of the league — Watt is considered one of the leading contenders for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. No doubt that it helped to have Dupree on the opposite side, often squeezing quarterbacks in Watt’s direction, as Watt did for Dupree.

“I don’t think T.J. Watt gets assistance from anyone, in terms of his quality of play. T.J. makes his plays,” Tomlin said. “I don’t think that’s going to be an issue at all. Guys like T.J. don’t depend on anyone.”

Of course this isn’t true on its face. Some of Watt’s sacks have come out of stunts or games that involve intricate work between two adjacent pass rushers. Tomlin likely is insisting that Watt will continue to be a force on his side.

Indeed, if teams alter their approach to run away from Watt and toward Highsmith in circumstances when they typically would favor going “righthanded,” that in itself will reflect Watt’s impact on a game. But Highsmith still must be able to handle the excess traffic that comes his way.

Tomlin said the team’s great pass rush over the past three seasons has been, foremost, the product of “quality players” such as Dupree, Watt and linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward.

“They provide a wave that we ride,” Tomlin said. “They’re good individually. They’re good collectively. And they’re consistent, in terms of their performances.”

There is one fewer of them now.

The Steelers have been an imperfect team with a perfect record, but now they’re even more imperfect than before.

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