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Highsmith is the next 'next man up'

Alex Highsmith officially has become the "next man up."

"You can characterize it as official that Bud (Dupree) is out for the rest of the year with a significant knee injury," said Coach Mike Tomlin at his weekly news conference from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Thursday.

And so now the world knows what was suspected since the fourth quarter of the Steelers 19-14 victory over Baltimore at Heinz Field on Wednesday, that Bud Dupree, currently second on the team and tied-for-seventh in the NFL with 8 sacks, will play no more football for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2020 NFL season.

Tomlin said he wasn't sure when the surgery will be performed on Dupree's knee, and that he also understands his loss will be felt beyond the player's on-the-field contributions. "I'm sure there are problems when a guy like Bud goes down, a guy who everybody has a great deal of love and respect for – the man, the player."

But now, it's Highsmith's turn, just as it was Robert Spillane's turn when Devin Bush was lost to a knee injury and just as it was Kevin Dotson's turn when he was asked to fill in for a couple of games when David DeCastro was injured.

"I'm just as comfortable and confident (in Highsmith) as I was in Robert Spillane when we called upon him, or in Kevin Dotson when we called upon him," said Tomlin. "That's life in this business, and so those guys work behind the scenes every day very diligently preparing themselves for these opportunities. Not only in terms of knowing what to do, but just preparing themselves in terms of conditioning for when we ring their bell, and we are ringing Alex Highsmith's bell now. So it'll be exciting watching him respond to it, but it'll also be exciting to watch his growth. Growth is associated with experience, and no doubt in the coming weeks he's going to be gaining a lot of that."

Highsmith may be acquiring a lot of experience in the upcoming weeks, but he doesn't have a lot of it at the NFL level right now. Through 11 games, Highsmith has played 139 defensive snaps, with 25 against the Ravens in Baltimore being his single-game high so far. He has 20 tackles, including three for loss, plus one sack and one interception. His sack came against the Cowboys, and the interception was in the win over the Ravens in Baltimore.

"In the interview process (before the draft) I was really impressed with his maturity, but that's not surprising given that he was a fifth-year senior," said Tomlin. "And often we're not drafting a lot of fifth-year seniors these days, and so he had a maturity level that was beyond where he is in this process but he's probably older than most rookies. I like his continual growth over the course of his career that manifests itself in the form of production. He had a really big year in 2019 at UNC-Charlotte, and so those are some of the things that were attractive to us. He had a tangible, growing resume, and he has some maturity that we thought would aid us if he was called upon the way he's being called upon now."

How Dupree's injury impacts the Steelers defense will be revealed over the final five weeks of the regular season and then into the playoffs, but one area in which Tomlin believes it will have no effect is in how it impacts T.J. Watt, currently the NFL leader in sacks with 11.

"I don't think T.J. Watt gets assistance from anyone in terms of his quality of play," said Tomlin, disputing the common notion that one edge rusher feeds off the edge rusher on the other end of the line of scrimmage. "T.J. makes his plays. I don't think that's going to be an issue at all. Guys like T.J. don't depend on anyone."

"We have some other bumps and bruises associated with play. We're still assessing that. I know Steve Nelson went to get an MRI on his knee. He was able to finish the game, but it was something worth looking at today. I'll be better able to give you quality information on that probably tomorrow."

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