The Steelers defense suffered a huge loss on Sunday, as defensive end Stephon Tuitt was lost, likely for the season, in the midst of a potential career season.
The plan to replace him involves utilizing veteran backup Tyson Alualu and more of nose tackle Javon Hargrave in sub packages as the Steelers did on Sunday night against the Los Angeles Chargers.
But Tuitt’s loss will be difficult to overcome. For one, no one on the Steelers roster has his combination of size and athleticism.
“He is 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds and he runs like a deer,” defensive line coach Karl Dunbar summed up on Tuesday.
Not only that, Tuitt seemed to have reached another level his play this season.
“He could have played in the Pro Bowl,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “We call him the mustang for a reason. He is trouble for a lot of people inside. We have some guys that will back him up and come in a play for him, but it is tough losing that type of guy on the interior. Other people have to pick up the slack.”
The Steelers replenished their depth on Tuesday by bringing back veteran backup L.T. Walton on Tuesday. Walton knows the Steelers’ system, but hasn’t played in it since 2018. Sixth-round rookie Isaiah Buggs has yet to play in a game.
That means that most of the replacing is going to fall to Alualu, a former first-round draft pick that has been a solid rotational player for the Steelers, but hasn’t been a regular starter since his final season in Jacksonville in 2016.
“Tyson made some great plays in the game,” Dunbar said. “You really love to see that guy that can come in and play left end, nose tackle and right end. He was our utility guy who can come in and play nose tackle, left end and right end. He was our utility guy and now he becomes a staple at left defensive end.”
Alualu has the pedigree and he’s shown flashes in limited chances with the Steelers. He’s also filled in well for Tuitt before. In 2017, he made five starts after a pair of injuries hobbled Tuitt in the early part of the season.
He responded with four sacks and seven tackles for loss — both career highs. That’s the kind of performance the Steelers will need once again if they’re going to avoid a big drop off in production with Tuitt out.
“It is always tough when you lose a good football player,” Dunbar said. “We just have to go with the next man up mentality.”