With the New York Jets flying into Acrisure Stadium to do battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's time to launch into another Classic Jurassic Meat-Eater Matchup, pitting the titans of the trenches in close-quarter combat.
This week's matchup pits the Jets' 6-foot-8, 310-pound wooly mammoth of a left tackle, Conor McDermott, making just his seventh start of his career, against the Steelers' raptor-like 6-foot-4, 250-pound Alex Highsmith.
McDermott is a huge and lengthy offensive tackle without a lot of starting experience. Mostly a career backup, he will in his sixth year, because of injuries to the starting tackles, (and also a backup), McDermott will be called upon to step in for starter George Fant.
Strong and heavy footed, McDermott plays with a mauler's technique. There's nothing pretty to his game, just the knowledge that if you come his way, he's going to test your chin and mettle. He's a tough guy who's going to try to engage with you in a brawling fashion. He's going to make it a fist fight if he gets his way. He's as subtle as a frying pan to the forehead.
Head heavy, McDermott is stiff and is more of a waist bender rather than a knee bender in pass pro. McDermott has a solid kick-step when he sets up in pass protection against an enemy combatant. Although he sets solid, his balance and athleticism after initial contact in what I refer to as "stand up grappling" is problematic for him. He can be off balance and can lose his man with high-motor, second-effort rushers. McDermott will always attempt to position himself to make you run through the middle of him rather than letting you take an outer edge.
Most offensive tackles will attempt to play an edge rusher from the inside out, but McDermott seemingly looks to play nose up.
McDermott will attempt to catch a pass rusher and engulf him, rather than extending his arms in a punching fashion to redirect the pass rusher. In other words, he seems to take to heart the Godfather movie mantra from Marlon Brando, to "Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer."
As a run blocker, McDermott is a road grader looking to lock up with his man. If he gets his run blocking mojo running downhill, he has the ability to drive a defender into the ground with sledgehammer force. Because of his huge size, sometimes the defender will find himself unable to locate the ball or ball carrier because his face is buried into the chest of someone the size of a Sasquatch.
Highsmith checks in as the NFL's sack leader, posting 4.5 in three games. Highsmith also has seven QB hits, and four tackles for loss. Couple that with his 20 tackles and Highsmith has shown himself to be strong in setting the edge, fierce and relentless in closing his run-fit assignment from the backside, and "raptor-like" when he gets on the sack hunt.
Highsmith needs to use his quickness and speed in dealing with the mammoth McDermott. But it will also take a heavy dose of the muscle Highsmith added to his frame last offseason to combat the massive McDermott. And to make his pass rushing assignments even more difficult, Highsmith most likely will have to battle more than one blocker, as McDermott frequently has assistance from a tight end, who will chip before heading out on a pass route, or a RB staying in on a max protection. Or both. That's especially the case without the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year taking some of the heat in pass pro pickups.
Highsmith has a nice combination of pass rushing prowess, power and foot speed. His first step is much like former OLB Bud Dupree, who had a tremendous first step. A student of the game, and having the best pass rushing beast and technician in the NFL in the form of T.J. Watt bookended across from him – when healthy – Highsmith has had a great opportunity to study what makes Watt tick, and how he goes about getting his business done.
If the Steelers are to get back to their winning ways, it's going to take a number of excellent performances. And one of the leading matchups that could swing the "W" into the Steelers column could be Highsmith relentlessly on the QB hunt all day long.
Stay tuned … Highsmith has star capabilities. And without the services of Watt, the Steelers need the playmaker in Highsmith to rise to the challenge.