One of the nice surprises of the 2020 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers was how consistently well their defensive line had performed throughout the year. The surprise did not necessarily come with the individual performances from their star players, I think we have come to expect All-Pro years from Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt almost year in and out. What caught my attention was how well the Steelers used their defensive lineman, in particular the rotation of players. The Steelers gave opportunities for some young guys, who might have been lower on the depth chart, to showcase what they can do on the field at the highest level. Reasons being weren’t particularly in the Steelers hands, but some guys took more advantage of these opportunities than others, doing what they can to prove they belong on the field on Sundays.
Before his injury, Steelers defensive tackle Tyson Alualu was on an absolute tear. Himself, combined with Heyward and Tuitt, were the tone setters up front for an already top 5 NFL defense. The constant pressure they added to an opposing offense made everyone else’s lives on that defense easier and was a huge part of individual success. It was also a good reason why the Steelers started out with an 11-0 record. Alualu played in 10 of the 16 games in 2020 where he put up almost identical stats to his 2019 season where he played in all 16 scheduled games. Alualu had a combined 38 tackles with 2 sacks and 4 tackles for loss up to the point of his injury. Now watching consistent Steeler football as we do, we can see Alualu’s impact on the field in an obvious way. Being between talents like Heyward and Tuitt does give that specific player a competitive advantage going into the contest, but Alualu’s play was on an elite level to start the year.
In Alualu’s absence due to injury, the Steelers leaned on 2nd year DT Isaiah Buggs to help carry the load on the defensive front. Buggs played in 10 of 16 total games in 2020, where he had a total of 11 combined tackles and was credited with a solo sack. Nothing statistics wise that jumps out at you, but Buggs did take advantage of the opposing teams doubling the two All-Pros beside him. Buggs played his best football during November, which is where the majority of his stats began to arise. He combined for 7 of his 11 tackles during that stretch and, in my opinion, he showed enough to garner more playing time for the remainder of the year.
That being said, the Steelers did make an unorthodox move, trading with the division rival Baltimore Ravens during the 2020 off-season for DT Chris Wormley. Most, I think, took this move as if he was going to go into the season as Alualu’s backup, seeing significant playing time throughout the year. Now even if that was the plan, that certainly was not how this past year turned out. Yes, Wormley saw playing time, but Buggs saw more. The only reason I can think of as to why this was could just simply be that Buggs outplayed Wormley and earned his time on the field. I find it hard to believe that the Steelers would have traded a late round pick to a rival team for a player that they never really intended on using.
Wormley, as I said, did see the field in 2020 plaing in 13 games, starting in only 1 of them, while only managing to produce 8 tackles and 1 solo sack during that time. It just seemed like the Steelers had more confidence sending Buggs out there when Alualu was down and he seemed to be making more plays each week. He was a big body in the middle of the line, clogging up the running game while also showing he can provide pressure on the quarterback. That allowed some of those double teams to be taken off of Heyward and Tuitt single handedly helping this defense out immensely.
With Tyson Alualu scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this off-season, we can hope to expect him back for the upcoming 2021 year but if that is not the case, the Steelers are going to have to add some pieces to a shorthanded DT group. Whether or not that be through the NFL Draft or free agency, we can expect a few more big uglies to be added to this defensive front. That being said, I do think Buggs goes into 2021 with the opportunity to see more playing time.
Do you think Buggs did enough last year to garner playing time in 2021? Comment below!