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The Steelers are in a better position to handle the loss of Stephon Tuitt this time around – if they’re smart and lucky

The Steelers are in a better position to handle the loss of Stephon Tuitt this time around – if they’re smart and lucky

Stephon Tuitt’s subtraction from the Steelers depth chart in 2022 doesn’t have to hurt the defense as much as it did last year.

If the Steelers do it right. And if they’re lucky.

As much as I’m a fan of Tuitt as a player, it wasn’t his 17-game absence that crushed the Steelers defense as much as Tyson Alualu’s 16-game absence.

Because, as we saw after Alualu went down early in Week 2 against the Las Vegas Raiders with a season-ending ankle injury, that’s when the Steelers defense really went into the tank.

In Week 1, even without Tuitt, the defense was excellent en route to stifling the eventual AFC East champion Buffalo Bills 23-16. Especially the first seven. And Alualu was pretty good with five tackles and a QB hit on Josh Allen.

But from the minute Alualu came out against the Raiders, that’s when the Steelers defense went south — trying more noticeably to stop opposing spike attacks.

This does not mean that Alualu is a better player than Tuitt. He is not. Alualu is always consistent, efficient and reliable and occasionally flickers.

When Tuitt is healthy and on a pace, he can be a game wrecker.

Well, at least he could be before he retires on Wednesday.

But Alualu’s injury made Tuitt’s absence worse. This is what the defense could not overcome. Especially with the limited options on the depth chart after they were both lost.

After all, after Alualu broke his ankle, the Steelers played the rest of the season without the guy they trust to be their starting nose tackle and primary backup to both Tuitt and Cameron. Heyward to defensive positions.

Chris Wormley hadn’t played much after joining the Baltimore team in 2020. Carlos Davis barely saw the field as a rookie that same year. Isaiahh Loudermilk was a rookie not expected to contribute much in 21. Montravius ​​Adams only joined the team at the end of November.

All of these players are more experienced and familiar with defense now. And, more importantly, Alualu is healthy.

It’s also to say nothing of the fact that they may improve inside the linebacker game of Devin Bush (now more than a year after recovering from his knee injury) and Myles Jack (a Joe Schobert’s perceived improvement).

So for all those reasons, the sting of losing Tuitt for a second straight year after the draft and free agency shouldn’t decimate the Steelers as much as it did in 21.

That’s if the Steelers allocate what would have been Tuitt’s snaps the right way and if they’re lucky the defensive line stays healthy most of the season — especially Alualu, Wormley and Heyward.

“When you have guys that can move around, it just helps us overall as a unit when guys can play in multiple positions and fill in where it’s needed,” Alualu said Thursday. “Most of the time we’re in nickel defenses, so it’s always the two defensive tackles. It doesn’t matter if you play the nose or the end, you just have to be ready to go.

The smartest thing to do would be to keep it simple. In 3-4 base defense, reconnect Alualu to the nose tackle position where he started 10 games effectively in 2020 after Javon Hargrave left for Philadelphia in free agency. Ask Wormley and Heyward to play defensive goals.

In the nickel-and-dime packages, I would keep Alualu and Heyward in the field as often as their conditioning would allow, with Wormley as the best backup in both places.

A combination of Loudermilk, rookie DeMarvin Leal, the Davis twins (Carlos and Khalil) and Daniel Archibong can get their bearings as needed at the ends. Adams and Henry Mondeaux will bring depth to the nose.

Wormley, however, sure seems like he expects to fill Tuitt’s role. In 2020, that meant 75.6% of defensive snaps, second only to Heyward among defensive linemen (78.3%). Alualu was only on the pitch 43.5% of the time that year.

“I think I’m ready to fill that role,” Wormley said. “I am delighted that Tyson is back healthy. I’m thrilled that some of the young guys are stepping in and playing some meaningful shots this season.

“I feel like I took advantage of the opportunity I had last year with Tyson and Tuitt away. … And now, knowing that Tuitt won’t be coming back, I’m excited to continue to play the role I had last year.

Wormley started 14 games and found himself with 71% defensive snaps down the line, even playing nose tackle at times. As a result, he posted career highs with seven sacks and 51 tackles.

But anyone who has logged a lot of playing time in this front seven – even Heyward and fellow All-Pro TJ Watt – must bear the ugly result of being part of a defense that finished last against the run, bleeding from a worst NFL of 146.1 yards per game on the ground in 2021.

To that end, despite all the progress Wormley has made in rushing passes, it looks like he may be trying to add weight to help anchor himself in the running game. The 28-year-old said he gained about five to seven pounds this offseason.

“I feel good,” Wormley said. “It’s going to take a little longer for the conditioning to settle in with a little extra weight. But I’m thrilled to be able to put that weight on, hold it, and carry it well.

Steelers.com currently has Wormley listed at 300 pounds.

The Steelers could definitely add to the defensive line in free agency before the start of the season. But with some of the cap space cleared by Tuitt’s retirement, they may see a greater need to bolster the depth chart at running back or outside linebacker, where the ranks are very thin past the starters.

So, for now, don’t expect a massive move to fill the void left by Tuitt. A healthy Alualu and a sturdier Wormley may not be as good. But the results could be quite good, and it will definitely be better than 2021.

I guess it couldn’t be worse. Especially against the race.

Tim Benz is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless otherwise specified.

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