Of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers would’ve been better off with Stephon Tuitt back on the roster and his retirement is a negative for the team from an on-field standpoint.
But the Steelers are a lot better with Tyson Alualu manning the middle. He’s coming back this year and man, that’s going to be such a boost. He’s an easy man to forget about. Missed almost all of last year with a broken ankle, was never at the level of Cam Heyward or Tuitt, and the guy just turned 35. I won’t say his return is as important as Tuitt’s would’ve been. But it’s right up there.
To the man, Alualu has been a tremendous nose tackle, kicking inside when Javon Hargrave cashed in with Philadelphia. When healthy, the Steelers’ run defense has been stout. Even when playing hurt, they were still serviceable. It was only when he was off the field did the defense crater. We wrote last November how much Pittsburgh missed him and with the year over, let’s re-run the numbers. Comparing a healthy Alualu versus an injured but playing Alualu, as he did the back-half of 2020, versus him out of the lineup for all but five quarters in 2021.
|Steelers’ Run D||YPC Allowed|
|Weeks 1-7 2020, Week 1 2021 (Alualu Healthy)||3.6|
|Weeks 8-17 2020 (Alualu Hurt/Playing)||4.3|
|Weeks 7-8, 2020, 2-17 2021 (Alualu Hurt/IR)||5.0|
Absolutely massive differences. Nearly a full yard-and-a-half difference between Alualu being healthy and him being out of the lineup altogether. T.J. Watt knew it, calling him the most underrated member of their defense.
Pittsburgh’s run defense had a ton of issues last year. When you’re the 32nd-ranked run defense and historically bad, it’s never one problem. But if you want to start somewhere, it’s the middle. The core of the defense and that’s the nose tackle. Run defense is build inside/out and Pittsburgh was severely lacking there after losing Alualu last season.
With Tuitt out of the lineup, the team could at least turn to Chris Wormley, a serviceable player who didn’t have an awful year, finishing it with seven sacks. But to replace Tuitt? They had no one to turn to. Their options were Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux, and…yeah that was it. And it wasn’t good. Pittsburgh allowed 5.6 yards per carry when Mondeaux was on the field. It was even worse with Isaiah Buggs, 5.65. That isn’t all their fault but they’re the two worse figures of any Steelers’ defensive linemen who played significant snaps. And their tape backed up those ugly numbers.
It got so bad the team tried to shift Cam Heyward to the middle, just to try and have some stability there. It wasn’t until they plucked Montravius Adams off the practice squad did things get a little better there. Having Alualu at that nose tackle spot, along with Adams, is big. That’s a much better foundation to work off of.
And I know this is probably Alualu’s final season. But he found the fountain of youth before getting hurt and didn’t play like a 33 year old in 2020. He’ll be nearly a full year removed from his injury come Week 1, and there is little reason to believe he’ll be far worse in 2022. Even if he’s 80% of his Tyson Alualu self this season, the Steelers will be far better off for it.
Pittsburgh made a ton of additions this offseason. Their busiest free agency ever, adding James Daniels, Levi Wallace, drafting Kenny Pickett. But Alualu’s return is at the top for the most impactful ones of them all and the Steelers could and should still have a top ten unit this year.