The Steelers' worst fears were realized with Stephon Tuitt. His pectoral injury, suffered in the first quarter of the 24-17 win Sunday over the Chargers, is a serious one.
Because of that, the Steelers placed Tuitt on injured reserve Tuesday morning. L.T. Walton, a former sixth-round draft pick of the team who went unsigned in free agency, was re-signed to take Tuitt's place on the roster.
The Steelers (2-4) are on a bye this week, so they'll have some time to figure out just how to replace the sixth-year defensive end, who was injured on this play barely four minutes into last Sunday's game.
But there's no doubt that with Tuitt out, the Steelers are going to be counting on greater contributions from their other defensive linemen. That means veteran Tyson Alualu steps into a starting role in the base defense, while nose tackle Javon Hargrave will see even more snaps in the nickel and dime defenses.
For Hargrave, an impending free agent at the end of the year, it means more chances to show he can do more than just stuff the run.
"I look forward to being able to step up and show what I can do," Hargrave told me Tuesday. "I'm ready to get to work. It's a big year for me. I've got that in my head. I've got that motivation."
Hargrave had a career-high 6.5 sacks in 2018 and already has two more this season. Despite being 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds, he's not the typical nose tackle. He can plug the holes on the run, but he also has been seeing a lot of playing time rotating with Tuitt and Cam Heyward as a pass rusher in the nickel and dime defenses.
He's seen his usage increase because of that. Last season, he played a career-low 43.6 percent of the defensive snaps. He's at 49.1 percent this season, a number that's sure to go up with Tuitt sidelined. He played a season-high 63 percent of the snaps against the Chargers.
"We've still got the pieces to keep rotating in and out," Hargrave said. "That's something we've been going with to try and keep everyone fresh, to be able to go strong in the fourth quarter."
Alualu and backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers will be a greater part of that rotation than they already had. And both were disruptive against the Chargers. Alualu tipped a pass on his first play after replacing Tuitt that was intercepted by linebacker Devin Bush, while McCullers forced an intentional grounding penalty in the fourth quarter that forced the Chargers to settle for a field goal.
Walton also can be a part of that equation. He made four starts in 2016 when Tuitt was injured with a biceps injury and has appeared in 42 career games, making 22 tackles and two sacks.
"Both of those guys had their best games," Hargrave said of Alualu and McCullers. "Tyson made a lot of plays. Big Dan made a lot of plays. That's what we're used to. We know our defensive line is stacked with talent. Anybody can get in there and produce."
Heyward agreed, though he knows his job also now gets more difficult without Tuitt next to him to command double teams.
"Tyson I thought had a great game. He was one of the players of the game, honestly, whether it was a tipped ball or stopping the run early," Heyward said. "His pass rush was really sound, as well. Tyson played very well and he's going to have to continue to do that. I know he's capable of doing it. We're going to need him from here on out."
Hargrave can provide some of that, as well.
Even though he might not look like Heyward or Tuitt, both of whom are at least three inches taller, Hargrave’s quick first step allows him to get a jump on blockers.
But Tuitt was playing at an All-Pro level this season. He had recorded 18 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits and six stops behind the line of scrimmage in the team's first five games.
"Tuitt was disruptive," Hargrave said. "He had a chip on his shoulder this year. It's bad to see that happen to him. He was destroying things. He had us all picking up our game, to try to do that too."
Now, they'll need to do it even more with Tuitt unavailable.
Heyward believes the Steelers have the players to do that. But it will take more of a team effort.
"We're not asking everybody to be Stephon Tuitt," he said. "Nobody can do that. We're just asking guys to step up and play good for our defense."
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