If the Pittsburgh Steelers hope to get a higher quality of performance out of their defensive line as a whole, then they are going to have to rely on having everybody available to them, something they certainly didn’t have last year.
While the pass rush was not a major issue—they did lead the NFL, for the fifth year in a row, in sacks—the run defense was in shambles for the vast majority of the season, finishing dead last in rushing yards allowed and yards per rush.
The biggest difference between the 2021 season and the year prior was the absence of Tyson Alualu at nose tackle. Injured in Week 2, the Steelers had to work with Isaiah Buggs as their primary nose for most of the year before finding Montravius Adams. They even tried Cameron Heyward as a starting nose for a game. But fortunately, Alualu, who began training camp on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform List, is back in action.
Or very nearly, anyway. Off the PUP List, he still has to take the next step. “It feels good”, he said of a bothersome knee that he noted previously was an issue even back in May. “It’s coming along. I am getting close to being back on the field and participating in team practice, quoted by Teresa Varley for the team’s website. “It’s been a while”.
Now, Alualu’s first season at nose tackle was actually 2020. First signed by the Steelers in 2017, he spent his first three years with the team as a rotational end, with Javon Hargrave in the middle. Prior to that, he was a 4-3 tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But he took to the traditional 3-4 nose tackle role immediately, unsurprising to anybody who had been closely observing his excellent two-gapping run defense over the previous three years. The only question was if he would have the size to handle it on a full-time basis, and the answer was a very clear yes.
Still, now 35 years old and coming off of the first major injury of his career, there is that unknown of how he will hold up. And one can’t help but wonder if this current knee issue might become a lingering one.
The Steelers do retain Adams from last season, who showed intriguing promise with excellent quickness off the line and penetrating ability. Could DeMarvin Leal handle the nose role? Or Isaiahh Loudermilk? The Davis brothers have to be considered candidates if the Steelers opt to keep either or both of them around in one capacity or another.
But let’s just hope that Alualu gets back out there and stays out there.