Stephon Tuitt's injury not season-ending; Steelers' deep defensive line prepared to fill gap
In just two plays, Stephon Tuitt showed why the Steelers invested so heavily in their defensive end for the next six seasons.
On the opening snap Sunday in Cleveland, Tuitt chased Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer out of the pocket before linebacker Anthony Chickillo finished the tackle on a 1-yard gain.
On the second snap, Tuitt forced running back Isaiah Crowell to the sideline for a 9-yard loss.
“Tuitt doesn't get paid $61 million for no reason,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “He's one of the best in the league.”
Unfortunately for the Steelers, those were the only two snaps Tuitt played in a 21-18 victory at FirstEnergy Stadium. One day after signing a contract that made him the fifth highest-paid defensive end in the NFL, Tuitt injured his left biceps pursuing Crowell and exited the game for good.
Steelers players feared the worst when an ESPN report Sunday night suggested a biceps tear for Tuitt that would force him to miss the rest of the season. Spirits were much higher in the locker room Monday afternoon when it was learned that Tuitt's injury is not season-ending.
“We're definitely breathing a sigh of relief knowing he'll be able to play down the road,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said.
The exact timetable for Tuitt's return isn't known, but teammates believed an NFL Network report suggesting a “week-to-week” absence for Tuitt was accurate.
“That's a big piece of our team,” nose tackle Javon Hargrave said. “It's good that it's not as bad as we thought it would be.”
Tuitt made a brief appearance in the locker room but was not made available to reporters, with a team spokesman saying the defensive end needed to attend an appointment. Tuitt did not have his arm or shoulder wrapped.
“Just to know that he's going to be able to be out here with us and to know the impact he can make every week, it's going to be amazing,” Shazier said. “I know a lot of people were scared he might not be with us.”
The Steelers entered the season with Tyson Alualu, a former first-round draft pick playing his eighth season, and third-year end L.T. Walton as backups to the trio of Tuitt, Hargrave and Heyward.
With the rotation down to four players for much of Sunday's game, Alualu played 54 of 66 snaps, the most of any defensive lineman. He had five tackles. Walton logged 17 snaps and had one tackle.
“It wasn't like there was a fall-off,” Heyward said. “I thought they played a (darn) good football game.”
The Steelers held the Browns to 57 yards rushing on 25 carries, a 2.3 average. They also sacked rookie Kizer seven times, with Hargrave and Heyward getting one apiece.
“When he went down, we had to keep going,” Hargrave said. “We had a lot of bodies and a lot of experience. We didn't miss a hearbeat.”
The versatility among the defensive linemen helped the Steelers overcome Tuitt's absence against the Browns and could be vital in upcoming weeks.
Hargrave already was in the rotation to play end in nickel and dime subpackages, a role he filled last year when Heyward missed the second half of the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Walton took snaps at nose tackle in offseason and training camp workouts, moving ahead of pure nose tackle Daniel McCullers on the depth chart. Alualu also can play anywhere on the line.
“We can play whatever we need to play,” Walton said. “Situations like (Sunday) happened last year as well, and when you prepare every day, you're ready for stuff. You never want something like that to happen, but you always have to be prepared.”
The Steelers didn't want to be caught short-handed like last season when, in addition to Heyward's long-term injury, Hargrave missed a December game because of a concussion and Tuitt sat out the final two of the regular season with a knee injury.
When free agency started, the Steelers actively pursued Alualu, who never had missed a game because of injury in seven seasons with Jacksonville. The Steelers gave him a two-year, $6 million deal to replace veteran Ricardo Mathews, who was injured for all three playoffs games last year.
“I knew I'd get a good amount of snaps to keep guys fresh,” said Alualu, who has 171⁄2 career sacks. “Good teams do that. They rotate guys in and don't have dropoff from the ones to the twos.”
It would seem that Alualu was signed as an insurance policy, but Heyward said that thought undermines Alualu's ability.
“We brought Tyson in because he's a good football player, first of all,” Heyward said. “We had a great opportunity to get him. He solidifies our front when there's a rotation if we need it, and we like that rotation because it keeps everybody fresh and there's not a dropoff. Tyson has been ready for this role, and he's going to do well in this spot.”
Tuitt came of age in the second half of last season when Heyward was injured, collecting all four of his sacks in a six-game span. The Steelers were hoping to have the two defensive line bookends available for a full season.
“I thought he stepped up ... grew as a leader, and I was very excited about what we were going to be able to do this year,” Heyward said. “We still have those goals in mind. It's not over. I expect him to be back, and whenever he is, we get back to rolling.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.