Had things gone differently on the defensive side of the ball, it likely would have been talked about an awful lot more than proved to be the case for the 2019 season. The season-ending injury to Stephon Tuitt without question made the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense worse. But the play of Tyson Alualu, who arguably had a career year, was largely able to mitigate that loss and allowed the defense to be one of the top units in football.
Alualu, who originally signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in 2017, was in his third season in Pittsburgh a year ago, and is under contract through 2020. A former first-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2010, he never lived up to his pedigree, but has been a very solid and oft-called-upon reserve during his time in the black and gold.
Last season, for example, he recorded 41 tackles, which is surprisingly near his career-high of 45, and the most he’s had since 2013. He only had one sack, but he’s never been a big sack guy—unlike Cameron Heyward. Still, he managed two batted passes, and he also finally forced a fumble late in the year despite displaying great punchout technique throughout the season.
His play overall was enough to get a special mention by Pro Football Focus, who recently published an article detailing the best player, best rookie, and biggest surprise at each position. T.J. Watt was recognized as the best edge defender at his position, but Alualu was mentioned as the biggest surprise among interior defensive linemen:
Ten years into an NFL career feels like enough of a sample, but that wasn’t the case this year with 2010 first-rounder Alualu. His previous career-high grade for a single season was 66.5, but he shattered his previous grades in both run defense (79.9) and pass-rushing (68.2) this season with the Steelers.
Alualu will turn 33 in May, and, as mentioned, only has one more year on his contract. Javon Hargrave is likely to leave in free agency. The Steelers are going to have to address the defensive line position in a fairly significant way relatively soon.
They can start by giving Heyward a contract extension this offseason, who despite also turning 31 in May continues to play the best ball of his career. A healthy Tuitt will also be great for 2020, but Alualu is probably in his last year in Pittsburgh—though not necessarily. Time will tell to see how much longer he can or wants to play, and at what cost, because he’s not necessarily a bargain as a rotational run-stuffer when the line is actually healthy.