KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For a lot of people, the 2021 Steelers season will be on that is attached to a giant “what if?”
The Steelers, generally undermanned compared to a lot of their competition to start the 2021 season, dealt with a number of gigantic injuries throughout the campaign, and none loomed larger than the losses of defensive linemen Tyson Alaulu and Stephon Tuitt, especially as the team struggled to run the ball down the stretch.
Tuitt injured his knee while attempting to get back into shape in the preseason and Alualu went down in the season opener against Buffalo, leaving the Steelers shorthanded on the defensive line for all of 2021, resulting in the league’s worst run defense.
That reared its head on Sunday night in Kansas City as the Chiefs eliminated the Steelers both on the strength of Patrick Mahomes, but also third-string running back Jerrick McKinnon averaging over five yards per carry.
Defensive captain Cam Heyward, the lone remaining starter from the preseason on the unit, said he can’t think about how things might have been different because he sees the pain his missing compatriots have gone through.
“I will never do a what if,” Heyward said. “My brothers have dealt with a lot this year, off the field and I will never question them. Those dudes have paved the way for me. Tyson has dedicated his life. … (Tuitt) has been hurting all year and it breaks my heart that I didn’t get to be with him.”
If there is a silver lining to the Steelers’ defense playing shorthanded for so long, it’s that some other players used the opportunity to emerge as potential options down the road. Chris Wormley settled into a starter role and had his best season, and other depth players took the opportunity, as well.
“That did give a chance to guys like Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk and Montravius Adams and Henry Mondeaux to grow,” Heyward said. ”I don’t know what the future holds for guys, but I am with those guys. I mean it. I love those guys. You will never hear me talk one bad word about those guys because I care about those guys too much.”
Defensive line isn’t the only place the Steelers can wonder what might’ve been. Tight end Eric Ebron, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and left guard Kevin Dotson also missed significant playing time.
Injuries are a part of life in the NFL, but on a young team with little depth, those losses were felt.
“I think I could have helped this offense out a lot, tremendously,” Smith-Schuster said. “With everything I’ve done in the past, it’s shown. I think my work speaks for itself. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t help this year.”
The Steelers put themselves in a position to overcome those injuries, winning a number of close games, including two pivotal ones down the stretch against Cleveland and Baltimore. But the lack of depth eventually caught up with the team in the postseason.