It was in his third season after signing a $59 million second contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers that defensive end Cameron Heyward enjoyed a breakthrough in terms of pursuing the quarterback.
In 2017, Heyward totaled 12 sacks, marking the third time in franchise history that a defensive lineman reached double figures.
The Steelers would be thrilled if fellow defensive end Stephon Tuitt follows the same career trajectory in 2019.
Tuitt will be entering his third year after signing a $60 million second contract on the eve of the 2017 season opener.
What followed were two solid, yet unspectacular statistical seasons for the former second-round draft pick.
This year, the Steelers are hoping Tuitt can provide the kind of splash that justifies his lavish contract. Tuitt’s $13.642 million salary cap figure ranks third on the team, trailing only Heyward and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“I’d like to see it in Year 1, but Tuitt has gotten a bad break a couple of times,” Heyward said after a recent voluntary workout. “Whether it was injuries or stuff happens, I’ll never take anything away from him. I know what he brings to the table.
“He’s very athletic. He runs to the ball. When he puts it all together, there’s not a lot of guys that can stop it.”
In five seasons, Tuitt has 20 career sacks, including 5.5 last season, the same number produced by outside linebacker Bud Dupree. Tuitt’s total, though, ranked third at his position group, trailing Heyward’s eight and 6 1/2 from nose tackle Javon Hargrave.
In the Steelers’ 3-4 defense, the ends are tasked with getting to the quarterback as frequently as the outside linebackers. At times, Heyward and Tuitt have formed a productive duo.
Tuitt showed flashes in midseason last year. After going the first five games without a sack, Tuitt dropped the quarterback in three consecutive games. A hyperextended elbow blunted Tuitt’s momentum and caused him to miss games against Jacksonville and Denver. He finished the year with 2.5 sacks over the final four games.
That Tuitt totaled a career-high 20 quarterback pressures — six more than his previous best — illustrated how disruptive he was in the backfield, but it also showed work was left to be done.
“It’s finishing, being a better finisher,” Tuitt said when asked which area he needs to improve the most in 2019. “Once I become a better finisher, I’ll be more dominant and make more plays for the team.”
An emphasis for the defense this year has been creating more turnovers. The Steelers had just 15 takeaways last season, which tied for third fewest in the league. Tuitt didn’t force a fumble or recover one in his 14 games.
“It’s everybody finishing in practice,” Tuitt said. “If you’re practicing with the defensive line, it’s finishing the sack. It’s DBs getting interceptions, finishing the play. It’s getting more turnovers, getting the fumbles. If we’re doing a little more of that, we will be all right.”
Tuitt has the backing of Heyward, the team’s defensive captain.
“We all left plays out there,” he said. “It’s about capitalizing and getting better. Tuitt is very hard on himself, and I wouldn’t have that any other way. It’s about being more consistent.”
Injuries also have held Tuitt back the past two seasons. In 2017, he suffered a bruised left biceps on the third play of the season, and he admittedly had little strength in the arm over the 12 games he played.
Last year, it was the elbow injury that kept him from suiting up for all 16 games for the first time since 2014, his rookie season.
Tuitt didn’t suit up for the first two weeks of organized team activities, and he declined to specify whether injuries were attributed to his absence.
Not that it matter to Heyward, who wants to see Tuitt on the field for good in September instead of June.
“Everybody goes at their own pace in this,” Heyward said. “It’s about being healthy when the season starters. As he continues to progress and work, he’s going to be a heck of a player.”