A few days into training camp, Steelers outside linebackers Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram are tripping over themselves.
No, they aren’t clumsily colliding on their way to meet the quarterback. They’re just falling all over each other to compliment their counterpart — and their competition.
“It was awesome,” Highsmith said of the Steelers adding the accomplished Ingram to their pass rush. “So far, Melvin has been great for us here. He’s been a guy I’ve been able to ask questions and to learn from. He’s a veteran, Pro Bowl guy. All of us were excited when we brought him in.”
But wait, this was supposed to be a breakout year for Highsmith in his second season. Bud Dupre’s absence, T.J. Watt commanding double teams on the opposite side, and a full offseason of team drills figured to form the perfect storm for Highsmith to take off.
Now Ingram is here after 51 sacks in nine seasons with the Chargers. That’s 49 more than Highsmith has, but the 2020 third-round pick is saying all the right things about the new outside linebacker. And the feeling is mutual, as evidenced by how Ingram responded to a question of whether he and Watt can be the best tandem in the league.
“Can’t forget about 5-6, either,” Ingram noted.
All eyes might be on Ingram now, given his sterling track record, but that’s no knock on Highsmith. His coaches certainly haven’t forgotten about him, and if anything, he’s been a magnet for praise so far this summer.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler still raves about Highsmith’s lone career interception, a Week 8 pick against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens that shifted the momentum of that game early in the third quarter. The Steelers rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit to pull out a 28-24 win on the road, and Highsmith earned plenty of respect in the process.
“When we had him as a rookie, we’d tell him to do something one time, and he did it. He was very easy to coach,” Butler said. “He comes off the sideline, he doesn’t drop where he’s supposed to, so we tell him, ‘OK, look at this and drop where you’re supposed to.’ He does, and he picks the pass off. Real easy guy to coach, got a great attitude. I wish I had 11 like him.”
The Steelers have at least three they like at outside linebacker, which is always their goal. It might become a rotation, to some degree, but for now it’s Highsmith and Ingram operating as the starters while Watt gradually ramps up his participation in practice.