Arguably the biggest way Stephon Tuitt grew in 2016 wasn’t anything directly on the field or a lone physical attribute but in his maturation and acceptance of becoming a leader for the defensive line. When Cam Heyward was lost for the season, there wasn’t anyone else to turn to. It wasn’t going to be a rookie in Javon Hargrave, a younger guy like L.T. Walton, or newcomer in Ricardo Mathews. It was Tuitt and Tuitt only and a role he accepted, embraced, and thrived in.
He sat down with Steelers.com’s Missi Matthews to recap the season, including what it was like to fill Heyward’s shoes.
“Everyone was looking at me…I was the guy the defensive line in the room had to look up to, and get that information and motivation to keep going. At first, when it was thrown to me, I won’t say it was a lot of pressure, I just wasn’t used to it. I’m a young guy, still learning myself, becoming better with my teammates. As time grew, I accepted the role, and knew the role for what it was. Cam knew he was going to be out for the year, I had to really accept that. I had to grow from that situation beyond what I had to do to become a football player for myself.”
Heyward missed most of October and briefly returned before a torn pec muscle against the Dallas Cowboys forced him to miss the rest of the year. The defense stepped up from there, partially led by Tuitt, to finish out the season strong, win the AFC North, and make a playoff run.
“I got a lot of good guys who were in my corner. And like I said, the communication part, that was key for me to be able to express myself and explain myself to my teammates over the calls, the plays, and be more involved in that than I was. I think in return my teammates respected that. And in return, I gave them everything I had.”
His numbers were slightly down from 2015 and again, he missed two games, but his play was still strong and like the Steelers’ defense, improved as the season chugged along. Tuitt is now in line for a long-term contract that may rival what Heyward received two years ago.
But Heyward’s presence was still felt, a vocal leader on the sidelines, something Tuitt is grateful for. He knows the leadership torch will get passed back to #97 for the start of this season.
“It was big. It just showed the type of character guy he is. He’s going to be here no matter what. That shows his dedication to the football team, his dedication to football. That’s Cam. We all look up to him because he’s our leader on the defensive line room and not only on the defensive line room, that’s our leader around the Steelers’ organization.”
With an emerging Hargrave and two bonafide studs in Heyward and Tuitt, the Steelers will have one of the best starting 3-4 defensive lines in the NFL.