The loss of Stephon Tuitt is a big blow for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, though the team is boosted by tremendous depth at the defensive line, well at least they were up until Tuitt’s injury. The defensive end’s injury means that Tyson Alualu, a key depth piece will slide into Tuitt’s place with Javon Hargrave also sharing some duties as well.
While Alualu is a downgrade from Tuitt, he is still a capable run defender. His limitations rushing the passer will be aided by Hargrave who will likely fill in for Alualu on passing downs.
There is obviously a big amount of concern when you lose your starting defensive end, especially one that was having their best season to date but the more pressing concern for the Steelers might be the stamina of their overall defensive line unit.
Tuitt has played 64-percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season, while Cameron Heyward has played over 73-percent. Two very hardworking players, the Steelers were lucky enough to have Alualu waiting in the ranks to relieve both defensive linemen but now Alualu and Hargrave will both be asked to play more than they are usually accustomed to and their usage may have a trickle-down effect on the team’s defensive performance.
The Steelers have been in this position before, even going back to last season when Tuitt missed the meetings against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos due to injury. Hargrave and Alualu both played their highest snap count of the season in those two games with Hargrave totalling 97 snaps and Alualu taking 75 snaps to himself.
The result was not pretty, especially on the ground as the Steelers allowed 303 yards rushing over those two contests. Tuitt returned following the loss to the Broncos and the Steelers held their final four of five opponents under 100 yards rushing.
There is a good chance that Hargrave ends this season with a career high in snaps played and Alualu may cross the 400-snap benchmark for the first time since 2017. Should one of Heyward, Hargrave or Alualu falter down the stretch due to their increased workload, there is not a lot behind them as Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton and rookie Isaiah Buggs wait in the ranks.
Should any of those three have to see significant snaps, it likely will not be a good sign for the Steelers. McCullers is a six-year veteran who has never played over 18-percent of the team’s defensive snaps over the course of a full season and there is a reason for that. Walton was re-signed after Tuitt was placed on IR, though he has not played over 20 snaps in a game since the 2016 season finale. Buggs may have the highest ceiling of the previous three but he has been a healthy inactive through the first six games as the team had essentially planned to redshirt him this year.
Mike Tomlin recently said during his press conference that the defensive line rotation will depend on their quality of play.
“If the guys are playing really solidly, we’ll play ‘em. If they’re not, then we’ll play ‘em less. We have a plan, but we’ll remain light on our feet. We won’t be married to that plan because we want to produce a winning effort, and we’ve got to acknowledge what we’re looking at, sometimes in-stadium,” Tomlin said.
While this strategy sounds very straight forward, Tomlin must be aware of the unexpected workload increase that Tuitt’s injury will bring to the defensive line. While the Steelers enjoyed the quality of depth at the position a few weeks ago, they run the risk of running into some serious fatigue down the stretch should they not carefully monitor the usage of their defensive linemen.