Cameron Heyward may be the leader of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense—literally, the captain—but it goes without saying that he doesn’t do it all alone, and for the past six years, he has had a very worthy running mate in Stephon Tuitt, who has proven to be his equal in talent, even if not so much in consistency and durability.
We were reminded of that this past week when Tuitt, the sixth-year veteran, suffered a pectoral injury that will leave him on the Reserve/Injured List for the rest of the year. If there is any silver lining, it is that it is an injury that Heyward had himself, so not only do we have a case study about how well a player can play returning from the injury, Tuitt literally has a peer who can help guide him through the process.
But the imminent business is what takes place on the field, and now the Steelers have to prepare to embark on 10-plus games without Tuitt, and how to compensate for his absence. “We have to hold down the fort”, Heyward said, with the primary responsibility falling upon himself, Javon Hargrave, and top backup Tyson Alualu.
“Tuitt is a heck of a player”, he told reporters yesterday, via the team’s website. “We aren’t asking anybody to emulate him, just to get the job done. I thought Tuitt was having a heck of a year. You never want to see a guy go down. He has made a lot of progress. I was proud of him. I would like to think he was having a Pro Bowl, All-Pro year. Now he has a setback. He is going to bounce back in a big way”.
Heyward should know, as mentioned. He came back from a torn pectoral only to record Pro Bowl seasons in back to back years, totaling 20 sacks during that span. He is nearing 50 for his career, which would make him just the second defensive lineman in team history to do so, since sacks became an official statistic.
But it’s another thing that he said that is important. The Steelers can’t expect, and can’t ask anybody to, emulate Tuitt. There’s a reason he was a second-round pick. You very rarely find players with his sort of natural physical gifts later in the draft.
They simple can’t replicate what he did. What they have to do is find other ways to compensate, and the solutions will come from beyond the defensive line. It will take greater schematic ingenuity, including an increase in blitz percentage, to try to shoulder the heavy load Tuitt leaves behind for his teammates.