While many Pittsburgh Steelers are quick to point out that the team’s defensive line will be weakened with the expected loss of starting defensive tackle Javon Hargrave this offseason, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in a couple of weeks, they sometimes forget that, for most of the season, an even better player had been sitting on the sidelines.
Stephon Tuitt, the team’s second-round pick in 2014, who is, by the way, in fact younger than Hargrave, was limited to just five full games before he suffered a season-ending injury early in a Week Six victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Prior to going down with the injury, he was tracking to have a career year and was clearly the best defender on the Steelers’ unit up to that point. He finished the season, having played just 278 snaps, with an impressive 22 tackles, including six for a loss, with three and a half sacks, plus seven quarterback hits.
Tuitt never had more than eight tackles for loss in a single season. He had already gotten three quarters of the way to his career-high figure in about a third of a season. He was also on-pace to shatter his own personal-best for sacks, trending toward double digits, whereas his career-high remains the 6.5 that he had in his second season.
Cameron Heyward wants to remind you that Tuitt is coming back, and in a big way. He Tweeted about it last week, saying that his return “puts us over the top”.
— Cam Heyward (@CamHeyward) February 26, 2020
Heyward himself is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, his first season in which he was both a starter for the Pro Bowl and a first-team All-Pro. He finished the year with 83 tackles and 11 tackles for loss, with nine sacks, 23 quarterback hits, one forced fumble, one recovery, and six passes defensed, one of which resulted in a defensive interception.
Getting Heyward and Tuitt on the same field at the same time and playing at their highest level simultaneously will do wonders for this defense. When both are healthy, Hargrave already has a somewhat limited role.
Frankly, a large part of Hargrave’s value over the course of his career had been as somebody who could take up some of the snaps Tuitt has missed every year due to injury since he became a full-time starter. The 2019 season was merely the most egregious.
That’s not in any way to downplay Hargrave’s abilities. I fully expect him to come into his own in 2020 on a 4-3 front, and possibly even make a push to get his name in the conversation for the Pro Bowl, or at least to be named as an alternate.
But we shouldn’t let that overshadow the fact that Tuitt’s return is even more significant than Hargrave’s departure. All things being equal, this defense is better with Tuitt on it than with Hargrave. Of course you want to have both, but there’s a salary cap.