There is a jump that players are expected to make from their rookie season to their second year, but that jump is expected to be even greater when year three rolls around.
And for linebacker Alex Highsmith, year three was a monster jump.
"It was a good year, but I'm far from satisfied," said Highsmith. "I never get complacent or comfortable, but I am grateful for a better year and being injury free for a year. I got hurt before the year in camp but was fortunate that I went through the season without an injury. I got little bumps and bruises, but I'm just blessed to have this platform that God has given me. I always want to be grateful no matter how it's going.
"I never want to get complacent, but I always want to be grateful."
And the Steelers defense was grateful for Highsmith in 2022. He had a breakout year, one which saw him lead the team in sacks with a career-high 14.5, after recording a combined eight his first two seasons.
"It gave me a lot of confidence," said Highsmith. "In 2021, I didn't have a good start to my year dealing with injuries. I ended up finishing the year strong. This past year, I just wanted to start fast and continue it throughout the year. I felt like I was playing with more consistency this year and more confidence because I know the type of player that I can be. I just want to continue to get better every year.
"It was just a whole different confidence level this year. I'm just going to try to do my best every year to have even more production. If it doesn't come, I'm still going to do this. I'll still be the same guy, still doing the same type of preparation that I do. I'm a process driven guy, so I'm not driven by the results or the outcomes. If I knew that I was going to go into a game and not get any sacks, I would still prepare the same exact way. I just want to continue to be process driven through this next year."
Take a look at photographs of Steelers LB Alex Highsmith from the 2022 season
Highsmith said he pushed himself in 2022 to be at his best every week due in part to the desire to always be better, but also helping to make up for the loss of fellow outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who missed seven weeks with a pectoral injury that happened in Week 1.
"It stunk losing T.J. who is the best in the world at what he does," said Highsmith. "I just wanted to go out there and be my best self every game. I wanted to continue to do what I was doing after that first game, coming out and having three sacks the opener. I wanted to continue to apply pressure and get to the quarterback. I just wanted to go out there and be my best."
And if there was anyone who thought Highsmith did his best, it was Watt. Watt who was there for Highsmith last season, helping him whenever he asked while he was sidelined with his injury. But Watt was quick to admit that Highsmith didn't need a lot of help.
"Alex doesn't need much guidance," said Watt. "He's really gotten into his own routines now. He has a great rush repertoire. If he has any questions, I'm always there to provide answers. But he's a product of himself. He's worked his absolute butt off to get where he is.
"To see the growth. That jump from year one to year two in the league, and then from year two to year three and you just hope to keep climbing. He's been able to do that, and it's been awesome to see your counterpart put in the work and be rewarded and the future's bright for the outside backers of the Steelers."
Highsmith brings an approach that lets you know the future is bright for him. In addition to leading the Steelers in sacks, Highsmith led the NFL with five forced fumbles. He said it's a product of practice and the techniques and approach brought by defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, as well as defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and assistant outside linebackers coach Denzel Martin. It's also a product of Highsmith's dedication and work ethic.
"The culture of this defense is to get the ball out," said Highsmith. "The coaches emphasize it. They do a good job of setting up drills for us to work on finishing at the top of the rush. We do a lot of pass rush drills and at the end there's always a finish and there's always someone standing with the ball. We're working on reaching over, reaching through and getting the ball out. I think it starts with practice and we're working those because it's just muscle memory where you get around the edge, you get around the corner, you always just reach because you've done it so much."
And if you ever watched those drills, you would notice one thing right away. The energy they bring to it. The players support each other, encourage each other, and bring an energy that can be felt.
"It's so important to bring that energy," said Highsmith. "This past camp we had so much energy, especially in the defensive line room and the defensive side of the ball. Bringing that energy out just brings out a lot of competition. And I love competition. I love how Coach (Mike) Tomlin breeds competition, especially at camp with the seven shots and all the competition drills, competing for good food for the night. He does a great job bringing that out and it helps us in the game."