The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2021 season poised to have what would have been more or less universally regarded as one of the top defensive lines in all of football. Helmed by perennial All-Pro Cameron Heyward, he was to be flanked by Stephon Tuitt, coming off a career year, and Tyson Alualu, who came into his own at nose tackle the previous season after selflessly kicking inside following the free agency loss of Javon Hargrave.
This year, it was not to be. Tuitt had a personally devastating year, losing his younger brother, Richard Bartlett III, at the age of just 23 after he was killed by a hit-and-run driver in June. He did not participate officially in the offseason program, and he then suffered a knee injury late in training camp that required some type of surgical procedure.
The Steelers kept him on the initial 53-man roster before moving him to the Reserve/Injured List, a necessary procedural move that left him eligible to return later in the season, but that never appeared to be a factor. Exacerbating the team’s defensive woes was Alualu suffering a fractured ankle in week two, and missing the rest of the year.
Without two of their stalwart defensive linemen, the defense suffered incredibly, with the run defense in particular just dropping off a cliff, finishing the season last in rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per carry allowed. Heyward refused to entertain hypotheticals, following last night’s game, about what could have been different had the Steelers had those two available.
“I will never do a ‘what if’. My brothers dealt with a lot this year, off the field, and I will never question them”, he said, through a considerable amount of reserved emotion. “Those dudes have paved the way for me. Tyson has dedicated his life [to us]. He came back here from Jacksonville. I was blowing him up every single day, telling him he made a mistake, and he came back here”.
Alualu agreed to sign a contract with the Jaguars as a free agent early this offseason, but after he caught COVID-19, he didn’t have the opportunity right away to sign a contract. The recovery time allowed his teammates to convince him to reconsider and return to Pittsburgh after a great season as their nose tackle.
Tuitt had the best season of his career in 2020, finally staying healthy and performing consistently, leading to a Pro Bowl-worthy season that included 11 sacks. Often injured, he has faced intense scrutiny from fans regarding his availability, and some have very harshly questioned his heart and passion over the past several months.
Heyward was clearly speaking to that when he said, “My brother has been hurting all year, and it breaks my heart that I didn’t get to be with him. But that gave a chance for guys like Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk and Mon[travius] Adams and Henry Mondeaux to grow”.
Both Tuitt and Alualu are under contract for the 2022 season, as is Heyward, though it’s difficult to predict what this offseason will be like. Alualu will be 35 in May, and could decide to retire. Tuitt is a high-salaried player, and availability does matter, making him vulnerable.
“I don’t know what the future holds for guys, but I am with those guys”, Heyward said with emphasis, making it clear that their bond goes far beyond their profession. “I mean it. I love those guys. You will never hear me talk one word bad about those guys, because I care about those guys too much”.