Combined, Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt – two of the Steelers’ projected 2021 starters – have played a combined 57 defensive snaps this season. Tuitt’s been on injured reserve all year after undergoing knee surgery and the chances of him playing at all this season are in doubt. Alualu was lost five quarters into the season after fracturing his ankle against the Raiders.
That’s forced young defensive lineman behind them to grow up. And fast. Guys like Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux, and Isaiahh Loudermilk. Talking with reporters Thursday, Keith Butler said while those guys have made some strides, there’s plenty of room to grow.
“You lose two guys like that it’s hard to replace them,” Butler told reporters via the Trib’s Chris Adamski, referring to the losses of Alualu and Tuitt. “We’ve got some young guys who have got to come along and step up. We’re working with them, we’ll continue to work with them. Cam has done a real good job for us in those terms. Our young guys have to come along. They have to a certain degree but we need them to be a little bit better.”
Buggs became next-man-up at nose tackle following Alualu’s injury. Buggs enjoyed an impressive summer and his run defense has improved but his overall consistency could improve while he offers little as a pass rusher. Mondeaux has been forced to play up and down the line, struggling as the fourth string nose tackle, and though he’s a good athlete, he struggles to hold the point of attack and is too constantly washed in the run game. Pittsburgh has been mindful of Loudermilk’s playing time, logging double-digit snaps just twice this season as a rookie trying to keep his head above water. Loudermilk did have a highly impressive rep against the Seahawks last week, an old-school two-gap run stuff.
Heyward aside, the only other veteran on this line is Chris Wormley, enjoying a good season but certainly not at the level Stephon Tuitt was at a year ago.
Sound run defense will be paramount when the Steelers play the Browns this weekend. Despite injuries to the O-line and backfield, no team has had a better run game than Cleveland. All three of their top backs, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and D’Ernest Johnson, are averaging over five yards per carry. Hunt won’t play, still on IR, but Chubb is expected to return while Johnson broke out with a 146-yard performance against the Denver Broncos one week ago.