A common talking point during the offseason has been that the Steelers return “pretty much” their whole defense. They lost an impactful player in Javon Hargrave and a less-impactful (in quality of play, not in snap count) player in Mark Barron. There’s a key addition, though, that isn’t being talked about - Stephon Tuitt.
Tuitt will be returning from his season-ending pectoral injury last season. Tuitt was dominant in the six games that he played last year and his return will add to a defensive unit that is already among the best in the league.
If you forget how good Tuitt was last year, think about it this way. Cameron Heyward was a first-team All-Pro last season and was one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league. Through six games, Heyward wasn’t even the best defensive end on Pittsburgh’s roster. Tuitt was legitimately playing at an All-Pro level through six weeks, by far his highest level of play in what has been a successful career thus far.
Tuitt’s return seems to be flying under the radar because of the success that the defense had last year without him. The defense is already phenomenal, so it’s easy to forget that they could be even better.
Tuitt was on pace to easily set a career-high in sacks last year. He was a force getting after the quarterback and against the run. Early in the season, before Pittsburgh’s defense really kicked it into high gear (thanks, Minkah Fitzpatrick), Tuitt was the best player on that side of the ball.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that Tuitt has been injured during his career. Though it was the first long-term injury he has dealt with, it feels like Tuitt is dealing with bumps and bruises. He’s missed games for a biceps tear, a back injury, a hyperextended elbow, and a knee injury. Two games here and there add up over the course of multiple seasons.
Still, the team is more than confident in Tuitt moving forward. He wouldn’t have been signed to a five-year extension prior to the 2017 season if they weren’t.
One thing that isn’t being talked about enough is how Tuitt will help replace Hargrave. Sure, Tuitt is a defensive end while Hargrave is a defensive tackle. But a rotation will be used to replace Hargrave because there is no true nose tackle on the team (unless you want to count Dan McCullers). So, having Tuitt back in his spot will allow more players to rotate in at the defensive tackle position.
Chris Wormley is a great example of this. Wormley was a defensive end with the Ravens and isn’t a true nose tackle, but it’s expected that he’ll contribute as a nose tackle for the Steelers.
With Tuitt back at the other defensive end spot opposite Heyward, Wormley becomes another guy that can contribute in the nose tackle rotation. He’ll still play some defensive end, too, as Heyward and Tuitt won’t be playing every snap of every game.
Tyson Alualu is another guy that will contribute rotationally at both the nose tackle and defensive end positions. Again, having Tuitt back is a big help because Wormley and Alualu are both solid rotational players but shouldn’t be relied on to be full-time starters or play a high volume of snaps.
Getting Tuitt back to the defense doesn’t just add a very good player, but it also gives the defensive coaching staff more options along the defensive line. There’s a lot of versatility in the unit, and Tuitt is no exception.
If healthy, Tuitt and Heyward will have a great chance to prove that they are one of the best interior defensive linemen duos in the NFL this year. There are high hopes for the Steelers defense, and being a top-three unit in the league is surely a possibility. A healthy Stephon Tuitt will be a major contributor to achieving that goal.