A Better Defense in 2020?

PittsburghQuarterly.com

By. Jonathan Clark, @jonclark_7
SteelerNation.com

 

This off-season, us as fans, have watched the Pittsburgh Steelers improve on the offensive side of the football through the three-year commitment to TE Eric Ebron and using their highest draft pick on WR Chase Claypool. We haven’t heard too much noise regarding this Steelers defense and besides the loss of Javon Hargrave, no major moves/changes have been made on that side of the football. I think this shows that GM Kevin Colbert‘s confidence for this year’s defense is at an all-time high and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be. But can we get better? 

I’ve asked myself this question multiple times this off-season, and the answer just might be “yes”.

As we all know in 2019, the Steelers defense showed signs that the “Steel Curtain” of old is still alive and well. With the additions of the likes of Minkah Fitzpatrick through trade, and Devin Bush through the NFL Draft, this hard nose defense went from being ranked 17th overall in team defense in 2018, all the way up to a top 5 ranked defense this past year. In doing so, Pittsburgh led the NFL in total team sacks with 54 and ranked 3rd in total pass defense trailing only the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers

Anyone who knows football, knows just how deadly that combination can be on the gridiron. Those two units work hand and hand with each other, and it’s obvious that when one unit thrives, the other follows right in their footsteps. 

Pittsburgh’s defensive line in 2019 consisted of household name Pro Bowl DE Cam Heyward, rising star NT Javon Hargrave (who signed a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles this off-season), and 10-year NFL veteran, Tyson Alualu. These three, as well as OLB’s TJ Watt and Bud Dupree, are the ones responsible for putting up a 9.7 adjusted sack rate, which is .7 points higher than San Francisco, good for 1st in the NFL in that category. The pressure that the line provided allowed for the Steelers’ secondary to have a break out year and the back ends break out year allowed for this d-line to make their presence known. This stayed consistent throughout all of 2019.

The scariest part about all of this, is this defense put up these numbers without one of the most underrated players in the NFL, #91 Stephon Tuitt.

While Alualu did just about as good as you can do trying to replace Tuitt, Stephon’s production might just be too hard to replace. In 64 total NFL games, he has racked up a total of 23.5 sacks and 69 QB hits. Summed up as, he knows how to get to the quarterback, and does it quite well. Production has never been Tuitt’s downfall, since coming into the league in 2014, he and Heyward have become a top defensive line pairing in the NFL, and has made his presence known on this defensive front since day one. Injuries are what has held #91 back throughout the first half of his career, and that was the case again for him in 2019. 

Tuitt’s injury history is a concerning one to say the least. He has gone through six documented injuries to six different parts of the body, including the hands, elbow, lower back, knee and most recently in 2019, suffered a torn pectoral muscle that only allowed Tuitt to play in six games last season. Throughout the first six weeks, he was arguably going onto have his best season yet in black and gold. He recorded 3.5 sacks, with seven QB hits and combined for 40 overall tackles. To put things in perspective, in 2018, Tuitt played in 14 games for the Steelers, posted 5.5 sacks, 20 QB hits, and combined for 72 tackles. If Tuitt would have been able to suit up for the remainder of the 2019 year, his projections would have been at 10.5 sacks and 20 QB hits on the year. Clearly his best pass rushing year yet and would have fit in just nicely with this dangerous Steelers defensive front. 

Given his injury history, it is a bit concerning that the list of injuries on his resume keep growing, aches and pains never go away, especially playing the position that he does. But there is no doubt in my mind that adding a healthy, rejuvenated and wired Stephon Tuitt producing like we all know he is capable of, is something that this team will welcome with open arms.

While all of Steeler Nation was spoiled in 2019 with a glimpse at what the future of the defense can look like, is it unfair to assume that the Steelers will be that much better adding Tuitt to the mix? Let us know how you feel in the comments below!

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