As the Steelers prepare for the 2020 regular season, there are certain positions on the roster garnering more attention than others. After Mike Tomlin gave the media some depth chart news in a virtual press conference last Tuesday, the nose tackle and left guard positions have been points of emphasis.
Tomlin announced Tyson Alualu will be the first man given the chance to take the nose tackle job after Javon Hargave left via free agency to the Eagles.
"We are still determining those things." Tomlin said. "With the lack of opportunity for learning in the offseason and teaching, we are acknowledging as a staff that we have to make some quick decisions and then kind of roll from there. I have talked to Matt Feiler. Matt Feiler is probably going to take the first snap at left guard and Ty [Tyson Alualu] is probably going to take the first snap at nose guard, and we will work from there."
Can Alualu replace Hargrave at nose tackle? The answer to that question might not even involve Alualu at all.
As most fans know, although the Steelers still consider their base defense to be a 3-4 alignment, they only utilized this defense about a quarter of the time in 2019. When they are in their sub packages, mainly the nickel defense, the nose tackle is taken off the field.
So, why is losing Hargrave such a big deal?
Hargrave started 13 games in 2019, filling in for the injured Stephon Tuitt, and racked up one forced fumble, four sacks, 60 total tackles, seven tackles for loss and six quarterback hits.
A season worthy of the big money contract Hargrave received from the eastern side of Pennsylvania, but how will the Steelers replace his lost production?
His name is Stephon Tuitt.
Let's put the equation together. If the Steelers rarely run their 3-4 defense, it means the rest of the time they are running sub packages. With the nose tackle off the field, it would mean other players will be tasked with filling Hargrave's shoes. But let's be honest, a main reason Hargrave had those statistics last season was because of Tuitt's injury. Otherwise, Hargrave's stats would have looked more like his previous two seasons.
Hargrave registered 6.5 sacks in 2018 as a rotational player, so could Tuitt's return, the addition of Chris Wormely and Alualu replace that production?
Cam Heyward certainly thinks so.
"I think we have a great group of guys that can play a multitude of spots and move all around." Heyward told the media during a virtual press conference. "That’s what made Hargrave so great. He could move all around. Obviously, we’re going ask a lot of other guys, whether it’s Dan McCullers or Tyson Alualu. I look for those guys to step up. Then you add guys like Chris Wormley to the group. I look for younger guys to step up, whether it’s Tavon Walker or Carlos Davis, guys who you might not know and are new to the Steelers way, but we’ve got to get them up and running."
The biggest factor in this equation is the health of Tuitt, who played in just six games in 2019 after suffering a torn pectoral muscle and has been knocked out of the lineup for other ailments during his career. But when healthy, he is dominant.
In just six games last year, Tuitt tallied 3.5 sacks, 22 combined tackles, six tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits. Think about what he could have done with ten more games.
Don't confuse this sentiment with downplaying Hargrave's overall ability, there is a reason the Eagles paid top dollar for his skill set. But with the way the Steelers play defense, and the hopeful return of Tuitt, it can certainly ease the loss of the man they called Gravedigger.
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