The absence of Stephon Tuitt was big last season, but so was that of Tyson Alualu. The longtime veteran, who moved to nose tackle late in his career, was a cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ run defense in 2020, and it was in shambles without him last year. Obviously, there are many factors involved in the entire unit’s performance, but that’s certainly one of the big ones.
With Carlos Davis injured, Isaiah Buggs underperforming, and Montravius Adams not yet in the building, the Steelers had to get creative at times last year—in ways that Cameron Heyward is hoping will never have to be revisited.
“Yeah, I went into a game starting at nose for the first time” last season, he said last week on the Mina Kimes Show. “Lining up at nose, you’re dealing with three bodies the entire game. I was plenty exhausted after that, and I don’t want to do that ever again”.
That was the dreadful 41-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at the end of November, with Chris Wormley and Henry Mondeaux being their other two ‘starting’ D-linemen. And the run defense did not help much at all.
Joe Mixon rushed for 165 yards during that game on 28 carries, scoring twice, and he only had a long run of 32 yards, so it wasn’t a couple of outlier carries but rather consistent, sustained success on the ground, which the Steelers could not stop.
Although Mondeaux started that game, rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk logged more playing time. Montravius Adams was not yet on the team, while Buggs was benched, and Davis was not healthy. They signed Adams off of the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad for the following week, and he immediately played 34 snaps against the Baltimore Ravens.
While Heyward doesn’t want to have to go back to playing nose again, however, he enjoys the versatility that defensive fronts can present in today’s game, explaining how it has “completely evolved” and how he could go from playing a 4i to a 2i to a wide-9 within the same drive.
“You’ve got to be able to play all of these different positions”, he said. “I love it, because in college, I was very fortunate to play all these different positions. Everybody said, ‘He could play 3-4’, but I enjoy being able to mix it up and play all these different positions and have that type of flexibility”.
Just as long as he doesn’t have to log dozens of snaps at nose tackle again. And that shouldn’t be a problem this year with both Alualu and Adams in the picture. Davis (and his brother) is still around, as well, and they have talked, at least theoretically, about rookie DeMarvin Leal being able to play inside.