Kevin Gorman: Steelers' Tyson Alualu hoping for heroic homecoming
Tyson Alualu paused to ponder the question about playing at Jacksonville as a visitor for the first time in his career after spending the first seven seasons in the NFL with the Jaguars.
“I never really thought about it like that, about the emotions of going back,” said Alualu, who still has a home in Jacksonville, Fla. “It really feels like a homecoming for me. My home is Hawaii, but that’s where me and my family live.”
Forgive Alualu for being preoccupied with preparing for his first start of the season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the veteran defensive end will fill in for the injured Stephon Tuitt on Sunday at TIAA Bank Field.
Alualu has a special place in his heart for Jacksonville, the city and its people, so he’s relishing the chance to return in a starting role for the Steelers. The Jaguars chose him No. 10 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, eight spots before the Steelers selected center Maurkice Pouncey, and Alualu started every game of his first four seasons and 88 total.
“It means a ton, to have this opportunity — no matter who we’re playing,” Alualu said. “I’m just excited that it is Jacksonville. I’m ready to step up and embrace the challenge. … You’ve always got to be ready, be prepared for when you do get opportunities and make sure there’s no drop-off.”
The 6-foot-3, 304-pound Alualu has rotated as the backup to Tuitt and Cameron Heyward. Alualu was productive in his first starts last season and finished with a career-high four sacks, including a multi-sack game against Cleveland. Alualu never had more than 3½ sacks or reached the postseason with the Jaguars.
No wonder Heyward calls Alualu “an unsung hero in our group,” acknowledging his pedigree but more impressed by his steady presence and work ethic in preparing like a starter.
“We have total confidence in Tyson. He knows what he’s doing,” Heyward said. “There’s no slouching in what he does. You’re appreciative of him because he was a first-rounder who came here and was OK with the backup role. … That’s why I feel totally confident we did have a real rotation having him being the third end because there’s no drop-off with him competing at a high level.”
That Jacksonville beat the Steelers at Heinz Field not once but twice, including in the AFC divisional playoff, was bittersweet for Alualu. It stung to get to within two games of playing in the Super Bowl, yet he enjoyed watching his former teammates reach the AFC title game.
“I was mad after the game, but I was still happy for the guys and especially the city. It was good for them to have that happen,” Alualu said. “There’s a lot I enjoy, mainly the people and the relationships that you build. The people of Jacksonville were good to me. I ain’t going to lie. I was excited. That’s a big part of who I am. I still have a lot of love for the city. I was happy. Anytime they’re doing well, I’m definitely rooting for them, except for when they’re playing us.”
Getting his first taste of the postseason gave Alualu incentive going into the offseason, and he is counting on his work to pay off at Jacksonville. Where the Steelers are riding a five-game winning streak, the Jaguars have lost five in a row. And Pittsburgh wants payback.
This may be a homecoming, but Alualu is treating it as a business trip.
“Maybe that plays a little bit into it, but we just want to come out with a win,” Alualu said. “That’s the bottom line.”
That hasn’t stopped Heyward from teasing his teammate, joking the Jaguars are going to honor Alualu with a tribute video at the game.
“The best tribute we can give him is walking out of there with a ‘W,’ ” Heyward said. “We want to get that ‘W’ for Tyson.”
That would be a heroic homecoming for the Steelers’ unsung hero.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.