Tim Benz: Steelers in better position to handle loss of Stephon Tuitt this time around — if they are smart and lucky

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

If the Steelers address it right. And if they get a little lucky.

For as much of a fan as I was of Tuitt as a player, it wasn’t his absence for 17 games that crushed the Steelers defense as much as it was the absence of Tyson Alualu for 16 games.

Because as we saw after Alualu got hurt early in Week 2 against the Las Vegas Raiders with a season-ending ankle injury, that’s when the Steelers defense really went in 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. Particularly the front seven. And Alualu was quite good with five tackles and a QB hit on Josh Allen.

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

That’s not to say that Alualu is a better player than Tuitt. He’s not. Alualu is always consistent, effective and reliable and occasionally flashes.

When Tuitt is healthy and in a groove, though, he can be a game wrecker.

Well, at least he could be before his retirement Wednesday.

But Alualu’s injury compounded the absence of Tuitt. That’s what the defense couldn’t overcome. Especially with the limited options on the depth chart after they were both lost.

After all, following Alualu’s broken ankle, the Steelers played the rest of the season without the guy they trust to be their starting nose tackle and their chief backup to both Tuitt and Cameron Heyward at the defensive end positions.

Chris Wormley hadn’t played much after joining the team from Baltimore in 2020. Carlos Davis barely saw the field as a rookie that same year. Isaiahh Loudermilk was a rookie not expected to contribute very much in ’21. Montravius ​​Adams didn’t join the team until late November.

All those players are more experienced and familiar with the defense now. And, most importantly, Alalu is healthy.

That’s also to say nothing of the fact that perhaps they’ll get better inside linebacker play from Devin Bush (now more than a year into recovery from his knee injury) and Myles Jack (a perceived upgrade from Joe Schobert).

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 are fortunate enough that the defensive line stays healthy most of the season — specifically Alualu, Wormley and Heyward.

“When you have guys that can move around, that will just help us overall as a unit when guys can play multiple positions and fill wherever is needed,” Alualu said Thursday. “The majority of the time we are in nickel defenses, so it is always the two defensive tackles. It doesn’t matter if you play nose or end, you just have to be ready to go out there.”

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

In the nickel and dime packages, I’d keep Alualu and Heyward on the field as often as their conditioning will allow, with Wormley as the top backup to both spots.

Some combination of Loudermilk, rookie DeMarvin Leal, the Davis twins (Carlos and Khalil) and Daniel Archibong can spot in as needed at the ends. Adams and Henry Mondeaux will provide depth at the nose.

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

“I think I’m poised to fill that role,” Wormley said. “I’m excited for Tyson to come back healthy. I’m excited for some of the young guys to step in and play some meaningful snaps this season.

“I feel like I took advantage of the opportunity I had last year with Tyson and Tuitt being out. … And now knowing that Tuitt is not going to be back, I am excited to continue to have that role that I had last year.”

Wormley did start 14 games and ended up with 71% of the defensive snaps along the line, even playing some nose tackle at times. As a result, he posted career highs with seven sacks and 51 tackles.

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

To that end, for all the strides that Wormley made in terms of pass rushing, it appears he may be trying to add some weight to help anchor down in the run game. The 28-year-old said he’s put on roughly five to seven pounds this offseason.

“I feel good,” Wormley said. “It’s going to take a little more for the conditioning to set in with a little bit of extra weight. But I’m excited to be able to put this weight on, hold it and carry well.”

Steelers.com currently has Wormley listed at an even 300 pounds.

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

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

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

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

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