In one sentence, Cam Heyward summed up Tyson Alualu’s season better than anyone could. It’s not often we’re talking about a 30-something year old player having a “breakout” year. But Alualu made the transition to nose tackle look easy and the Steelers’ defense didn’t skip a beat for the first half of the season.
Joining Steelers.com’s Missi Matthews virtually, Heyward praised Alualu’s performance.
“To have Tyson in the middle who really broke out for us,” Heyward said. “You really don’t get to say that often when you have a 33 year old playing at the top of his game. But we have a great defensive line. And I’m just excited for those guys to keep growing.”
Don’t let the stats fool you. Though Alualu had “just” four tackles for loss and two sacks, he played at an exceptionally high level. Kicking from defensive end to nose tackle, he got off to the hottest of starts, dominating along the interior for the first month of the season and being part one of the best run defenses in football over that stretch. He held the point of attack, got off blocks, finished plays, and showed tremendous effort. It’s fair to say that at 33, Alualu had his best season ever, a rare statement for someone whose been in the league for 11 seasons.
He’s also proven to be exceptionally durable, missing just five games throughout his career. Unfortunately, it seemed injury was a factor down the stretch. Alualu suffered a sprained MCL early in a Week 8 win over Baltimore. He would miss just one game but his play wasn’t quite the same the rest of the way. The bulky brace he wore on his right knee seemed to limit his mobility. Couple that with Devin Bush and Bud Dupree’s season-ending injuries and the run defense collapsed down the stretch. The difference is night and day.
Steelers’ Run Defense Weeks 1-7
Yards Allowed: 1st
YPC Allowed: 2nd
Rush TDs Allowed: T-1st
Steelers’ Run Defense Weeks 8-17
Yards Allowed: 27th
YPC Allowed: 25th
Rush TDs Allowed: T-14th
And it’s one reason why the Steelers were bounced in the playoffs, allowing 127 yards and two scores to the Cleveland Browns in their Wild Card loss.
Back to Alualu. He’s one of the sneaky free agents who gets lost in the big names of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Alejandro Villanueva, and Mike Hilton. But he’s an important cog in the middle who the team figures to re-sign on the cheap for at least one more season, potentially even two. If Alualu walks, there is no obvious in-house option. 7th round rookie Carlos Davis might be next man up. Of course, we said the same after the team lost Javon Hargrave, though every fan knew he had no chance of returning. In a run-heavy division facing the Ravens and Browns 25% of the time, you better be able to stop the run. Bringing Alualu back gives the Steelers their best shot at accomplishing that.