Steelers: What does Melvin Ingram signing mean for Alex Highsmith?

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith (56). Mandatory credit: Caitlyn Epes-Pittsburgh Steelers/handout photo-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith (56). Mandatory credit: Caitlyn Epes-Pittsburgh Steelers/handout photo-USA TODAY Sports /

The Steelers recently signed a high-profile pass rusher in Melvin Ingram. Here’s what it could mean for Alex Highsmith in 2021. 

As many fans were hoping they would do, the Steelers landed one of the best pass rushers in free agency. All eyes seemed to be on Justin Houston early in the process, as the former All-Pro player was still playing at a terrific level in 2020. However, Pittsburgh settled on Melvin Ingram.

Ingram is a former 3-time Pro Bowl player who has been thoroughly impressive. Unfortunately, injuries have been the story of his past two seasons, as he missed 3 games in 2019 and dressed for just 7 last season. Still, Ingram earned an impressive overall grade in limited action, according to Pro Football Focus.

Almost immediately after officially signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers, many fans and media personnel have already started to speculate what this means for Alex Highsmith in 2021.

As a rookie last season, the former college walk-on and Pittsburgh’s 3rd-round pick turned heads with his impressive play in limited action. After Bud Dupree went down with an ACL injury in Week 12, Highsmith took over as the starter and didn’t look back. While his production was modest, he did a good job both defending the run and creating consistent pressure on the quarterback.

How much does Ingram change Highsmith’s role for Steelers?

Prior to signing Melvin Ingram, the Steelers appeared poised to deploy a heavy dose of T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith off the edge. The depth was a major concern, as veteran Cassius Marsh and 6th-round rookie Quincy Roche were the only two viable options off the bench. However, adding Ingram to the mix certainly makes things interesting in their edge rotation.

I’ve heard some pretty outrageous claims already by some members of Pittsburgh’s media. There are those who believe that Ingram is only going to chip in 12-15 snaps per game while others think that Melvin Ingram is now the clear and obvious starter across from T.J. Watt. I tend to lean somewhere in the middle of these two predictions.

Typically, the Steelers have never really been a team that has had a heavy rotation with their outside linebackers. They usually invest high in two players they really like and play them 85-plus percent of the team’s total defensive snaps. Though this would break the trend in Pittsburgh, I don’t see that happening this year.

Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler aren’t oblivious to the fact that their defenders didn’t really show up late in the season and into the playoffs. Even with their star players taking the game off in Week 17 against the Browns, playing so many snaps throughout the season had clearly taken a toll.

In addition, I have a hard time believing that the Steelers were ‘desperate’ to find edge help when they waited so long in free agency before landing one and ignored the position almost entirely in the NFL Draft.

In short, I Alex Highsmith will still out-snap Melvin Ingram on the season – likely earning in the ballpark of 35-45 defensive snaps per game; whereas I think Ingram will probably be in the 25-35 snap count range per contest.

Related Story. Steelers final 53-man roster projection before training camp starts. light

Regardless of how the Steelers deploy their edge rushers in 2021, it’s hard to make any sort of case why signing Melvin Ingram was a bad thing. Even if he takes a good bit of snaps from Highsmith, he’s going to offer incredible depth and keep Pittsburgh’s pass rushers fresher this season.