Versatile Tyson Alualu unsung contributor to Steelers’ defensive line
Years of watching Dick LeBeau’s successful 3-4 defense have conditioned many Pittsburgh Steelers fans to expect a certain kind of player to handle defensive end duties.
They expect a 300-pound mountain of a man who doesn’t necessarily make flashy plays but is powerful enough to occupy blockers so the linebackers behind him can fill up their highlight reels.
Think Ray Seals and Brentson Buckner from the 1995 Super Bowl team or Aaron Smith, Kimo von Oelhoffen and Brett Keisel from the championship teams of the 2000s.
As the game has evolved over the past decade or so, though, 3-4 defensive ends have been asked to do more.
Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt don’t just eat up blockers. They make plenty of plays.
This evolution explains why the Steelers have found a valuable piece of their defense in Tyson Alualu. A nine-year veteran, he has been around long enough to see the evolution of defensive line play firsthand. At 6-foot-3, 304 pounds, he’s big and athletic enough to accomplish any task the Steelers ask of a defensive lineman.
“Even when I was coming into the league, I think that was one of the biggest things, being versatile, being able to play all the positions and do it to the best of my ability,” Alualu said. “I kind of find it easier to adapt to different schemes, whatever’s asked, depending on what defense I’m in.”
The evolution of defensive line play hasn’t been a complete transformation, of course. There are still times when Alualu, in a two-gap scheme, can make his greatest contribution to the defense by patiently and powerfully occupying a pair of blockers.
But there also are times when, in a one-gap scheme, he’s off to the races to blow up the ball carrier.
Other times, when the Steelers bring extra defensive backs onto the field, the ends move inside and play the role tackles traditionally play in a 4-3 defense.
It’s become a thinking man’s position.
“I think it differs depending on scheme and what you’re trying to do as a defense,” Alualu said. “I think it’s still kind of similar to that, where you’re trying to take up blocks, but I think the athletes that we have now are more capable of making more plays than just eating up blocks.
“Anytime you’re in a one-gap scheme, it’s always attack. That gives you a better chance of causing a disruption and making plays. There are still plays where we have to take two-gap, which benefits the defense. You’ve got to pick and choose when you can make the plays within the scheme.”
It’s also become a position where sheer size doesn’t matter as much as it once did. The best interior lineman in the game, Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams and a Pitt and Penn Hills product, weighs 280 pounds.
“When I came in, they told me I was too small to play interior D line,” Alualu said. “Now, especially coming out in the draft, they’re really looking at the tape and it’s, ‘Can he play?’ I think that’s the biggest difference, being 10 years in and seeing that.”
In general, Alualu’s contributions to the Steelers defense are mostly unsung. He plays behind Tuitt and Heyward, cast in a complementary role rather than a starring one.
Entering his third year with the team, he’s found it’s a situation that suits him well. Once a highly touted first-round draft choice, taken 10th overall by Jacksonville in 2010, Alualu now mostly concerns himself only with winning.
“If you have the team’s best interest in mind, if you want to win games, I think you have to do it that way,” he said. “I think there’s a little bit of selfishness in everyone where you want to go make the play, but it’s about understanding when you can take chances, knowing the defense, when you can shoot your shot and make something happen. I think it all comes down to that.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .