The Steelers will be playing without starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt and backup Isaiah Buggs when they face the Baltimore Ravens on Tuesday night, as both players were placed on the COVID-19 reserve list late last well.
Tuitt, who has 32 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles this season will leave a particularly large hole on the Pittsburgh defensive line and Buggs has done well when pressed into service as a backup in his second NFL season, so his absence will make replacing Tuitt even tougher.
“Obviously, it’s gonna be tough to replace a guy like Tuitt and a guy like Buggs. But, you know, we have to be ready for these situations,” starting defensive lineman and team captain Cam Heyward said on Sunday. “We knew it wasn’t gonna be perfect throughout the whole year and we understand injuries and different things happen throughout the season, so for us, we all have to step up.”
To help replace Tuitt will take a whole team effort. In the team’s two-lineman Nickel package, Tyson Alualu will likely be elevated from the third option to a starter’s role. In the base 3-4 alignment, Chris Wormley can take over for Tuitt, while Henry Mondeaux provides depth at end and rookie Carlos Davis at nose tackle.
“I have to step up, Tyson has to step up Wormley, Henry and Carlos as well,” Heyward said. “So, I’m looking for the guys to just, you know, rally around each other and play good as a unit.”
Playing together was a key part of the message from head coach Mike Tomlin, who emphasized that there’s no way one man could replace Tuitt’s impact one for one.
“We’re going to utilize all the players at our disposal,” he said. “We will distribute those reps among the group. The strength of the pack will be the pack in that regard. You talk about a guy like Tuitt and the impact he makes, it’s not a one-man job. It’s an all-man job.”
The Steelers are familiar with having to replace Tuitt’s contributions, as he missed significant time in 2019. Last season, nose tackle Javon Hargrave stepped up into a bigger sub package role and Alualu played extensively, showing the kind of play that gave the coaching staff the faith in him to enter the 2020 season with him as a starter after Hargrave cashed in on a big free agent deal.
Heyward is hopeful the opportunity presented to the Steelers’ backups can provide a similar type of result this year.
“This is something we’ve been practicing since training camp,” he said. “We trust in what we got. We understand that our starters are our starters. But, our rotational guys are starters in the waiting, so we’ll be ready for that.”