In every season, for every team, there are so many things that have to go right in order for the desired outcome to be achieved by the end of the road. Many of these things are ephemeral and hard to pinpoint, while others can be identified with relative ease.
Unsurprisingly, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a lot of those types of ‘things’ being pinpointed that must go right this year on the defensive side of the ball in order for the team to succeed this year, and much of the focus tends to be on their two most recent first-round draft picks, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier.
And yet, of the two, neither of them is guaranteed a starting job on opening day, if the sentiments expressed by the higher ups during the course of this offseason are to be believed. But there is another young player whose position seems to be well in place.
Stephon Tuitt is entering his second season after playing second fiddle to the selection of Shazier in the first round of the 2014 draft. Yet while Shazier was handed the starting job and Tuitt was struggling to get playing time, it was the latter in the starting lineup by season’s end, while the first-rounder was picking up scraps at the end of each half.
For much of his rookie season, Tuitt was lucky to get just a handful of snaps per game behind starter Cam Thomas, who was a veteran free agent signing that the Steelers plugged into the starting lineup after their free agent departures at the position.
After Brett Keisel was lost late in the year, however, and they were forced to shuffle the deck chairs anyway, the coaching staff made the decision to put Tuitt in the starting lineup at left defensive end, and he remained there through the final four regular season games and the one playoff game.
And he didn’t just start, he played a full starter’s snaps, albeit complete with many of the rookie tendencies that one might expect. But he undoubtedly improved as the game went along, and he even recorded a key forced fumble in the penultimate game of the season that helped lock up the Steelers’ first playoff spot in three seasons.
The question now, however, is where he goes from here. No doubt he has quite a high ceiling—he will not even turn 23 until after the season is over—but more players fail to live up to their potential than those who do.
It is almost surprising to see the Steelers turn to Tuitt as a starter already in his rookie season, and seemingly uncontestedly so as he enters his second year, especially when you compare it to the route that Cameron Heyward had to take to get to the same point in his career.
What kind of player will Tuitt become this season? How will he control the run? Will he generate much pass rush, as Heyward has learned to do? Will he be a difference maker? Or will he be a liability? Given that the Steelers don’t even have any other sound options, this is a pivotal question for the 2015 season and beyond.