Mounting injuries will test the young depth on the Steelers' defense

Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

When Tyson Alualu backed out of a verbal agreement with the Jacksonville Jaguars in March to remain with the Steelers, there was rejoicing in the locker room. The veteran defensive tackle might not get the accolades that others on the defense do, but his leadership and steady play along the defensive line has been an underrated factor in the success of the defense.

And now, sixth months after the Steelers retained out of their most unsung players, they’re now in the unenvious position of having to replace him. Alualu fractured his ankle in the first quarter of Sunday’s 26-17 loss to the Raiders and will miss the remainder of the regular season.

The Steelers were already hurting after dropping the game to the Raiders, but losing one of the most popular players on the team for the rest of the season cast a pall over the postgame interview session with defensive captain Cam Heyward, who counts Alualu among his closest friends on the team.

“Damn, that hurt,” Heyward said. “To be honest with you, I wasn’t ready for that. It goes back to training in the offseason together. We stayed in town, and he worked his tail off. I thought Tyson was going to have one of his best seasons. I’ve said it before. He’s the good cop to my bad cop. He settles the group down. Sometimes I can be too high or too low. I’m not going to sit here and make this a eulogy, but we’re going to miss him out there on the field.”

The Steelers were already missing two defensive starters when cornerback Joe Haden and inside linebacker Devin Bush were ruled out in pregame with hamstring and groin injuries. Making matters worse, for the Steelers, outside linebacker T.J. Watt exited the game with a groin injury late in the second quarter and did not return.

“Honestly, anytime No. 90 is on the field, he wrecks everything,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said. “He's one of those players. He's a Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald. He's one of the best players, and he gets paid like it, too. It's well-deserved.

“When he punched that ball out of my hand, we had a touchdown to Henry [Ruggs]. Those are the things a guy like that can do for you. I'm looking at [Darren] Waller, trying to bait him, then I'm about to throw to Henry and he comes in and punches it out. That type of play is a game-saving play, and that's the kind of player he is. When he's out of the game, we obviously notice he's out of the game, but it doesn't mean, 'OK, now we can do this or do that.' We run our stuff here in Las Vegas. Full confidence in our guys."

Carr was just being nice as he finished off that quote. At one point in the second half, it looked like a preseason game for the Steelers defense. One personnel grouping had the likes of Jamir Jones, James Pierre and Isaiahh Loudermilk on the field at the same time trying to stop a Raiders offense that has been among the most prolific in the league in the early going this season.

That did not work out well for the Steelers. The defense played hard and kept the score close, but they couldn’t come up with some crucial stops in the fourth quarter. Carr passed for 382 yards as the Raiders put 425 yards on the defense.


“I don’t know how much it played into the game,” Heyward said of the injuries. “I know T.J. was raring early in the game. Losing Tyson was definitely something I had to adjust to. It took me a while to settle down. He’s a heck of a player. But injuries are part of the game.

“That’s what practice is for. Hopefully guys are ready to step up. I have to be hard on my guys. We have to make the plays. It’s going to have to be a collective effort. The other guys have to pick up the slack.”

For the defensive line, it means a lot of young players are going to have to step up into more prominent roles. Veteran Chris Wormley was already starting in place of Stephon Tuitt, who is on injured reserve with a knee injury. Tuitt is eligible to come off IR after next week’s game against the Bengals, but the Steelers haven’t given an update on his progress in a couple of weeks.

Until Tuitt returns, third-year defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs, second-year tackle Carlos Davis and rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk will be asked to contribute more. Loudermilk, a fifth-round pick out of Wisconsin, played in his first NFL game on Sunday.

“They’re going to have to be [ready], and they will be,” Heyward said. “Coach Dunbar will get us ready. Anytime we’ve had injuries before we’ve had guys step up.”

That’s very true. The defense has been able to absorb losses along the line and still play at a high level. They did it in 2016 when Heyward missed the final nine games of the season and the playoffs, and they did it in 2019 when Tuitt was lost for the season with a pectoral injury.

The challenge is upon them again. And this time, with a long season ahead.

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