How the Steelers Plan to Replace Stephon Tuitt
Finding a fill-in for a Pro Bowl defensive end is as difficult of a job as any in the NFL. For the Steelers, it was only a matter of time before another injury hindered the success of this team. Unfortunately, this time they'll need to find a way to replace one of their most dominant defensive players.
Through five games, Tuitt got to the quarterback 3.5 times. The 26-year-old was quickly turning 2019 into a career season, but will now watch the remainder of the year from the sideline. Having to rehab a torn pectoral, Tuitt's year is over, and the Steelers are now left with their defensive-line depth to fill the role.
"We'll see what happens with our depth," Cameron Heyward said about the defensive line filling Tuitt's role. "We're bringing some guys up. [Isiah] Buggs and L.T. [Walton] will be able to get a chance and it's comforting to know I have another first-rounder over there in Tyson [Alualu], who's done it for a couple of years and I know can play at a high level."
Filling the shoes of a player on his way to his best season isn't going to be easy, but the Steelers have option. Tyson Alualu joined the team in 2017 and has since become a force off the bench. His added depth was a significant factor in their success up front, but he'll need to produce that same impact as a starter.
A former first-round pick in 2010, Alualu has accumulated 12 tackles and a sack through six games. Stepping back into the starting role, his journey through the NFL has equipped him for these moments.
"Being around the league you learn a lot of things and one of the things you learn is you have to be ready and prepared when your opportunity comes," Alualu said. "We just have to play better as a unit just to pick up the slack of losing Tuitt for the year."
While Alualu steps into the starting role, the Steelers will have options to add depth. Pittsburgh signed L.T. Walton to their roster in sight of the injury, and have sixth-round pick, Isiah Buggs, waiting for his opportunity.
Buggs, the former Alabama standout, hasn't seen action during his rookie year, but is considered to have a lot of potential in the NFL. The Steelers considered him a steal late in the draft, and their defensive-line depth has allowed them to develop Buggs throughout the season.
"I'm the rookie," Buggs said. "When I come in, I have to develop, get the coach's trust and show them that I can be on the field. Now the time has presented itself and I have to step up and be that guy."
Buggs has learned a lot from Tuitt since being drafted in April. The locker mates have grown into a teacher-student relationship that has helped Buggs transition into the pro level. Something the rookie says has made a lasting impact.
"I've learned a lot," Buggs said. "We sat down one-on-one and he taught me all the aspects of the game, the transition from college, and being in the NFL and being a pro. He's like a big brother to me and every time I step on the field it's going to be for him."
Buggs believes he's ready for his chance to step on the field during a regular-season game. With his development through six weeks, and the bye week to learn the final pieces of this defense, the defensive end should fill some sort of role moving forward and the players around him have prepared him for it.
"Most definitely," Buggs replied when asked if he's ready to expand his role. "Watching these veterans and practicing with them each and every single day, they guide me. Most definitely I'm ready."
Tuitt's season is hard to replicate. His impact on this defense was heard each week, both in pass and run defense. The Steelers have taken notice, and they're well aware of the effort they'll need to put in to overcome another injury.
"With the type of year he's having, having his best year and all the hard work he's put in to be in the position to be in, it's always tough," Alualu said. "We're here for him but at the end of the day we know we have to pick up our slack."
Despite losing another key piece to this team, though, the Steelers remain optimistic. At 2-4 heading into the bye week, Pittsburgh's season is barely alive, but they feel they're ready to handle the adversity and turn the second half of the season into a playoff push.
"We're still alive," Heyward said. "We have to rest up and get ready for this big run we're about to go on. We have to lick our wounds, we have to do whatever it takes, but we're still alive."