Steelers: Stephon Tuitt carries unwavering momentum into Cincinnati
If Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive end Stephon Tuitt was supposed to experience some kind of sophomore slump in his second year as a professional athlete, he apparently did not get the memo.
The Steelers’ second round draft selection in the 2014 draft, who many hoped would be used to aid their ailing secondary, picked up right where he left off in a rookie year where he would become Pittsburgh’s starting right defensive end for the final four games of the regular season when injuries thrust him into a position that he would eventually make his own.
The organization was very fortunate to be able to secure him in the second round after an impressive collegiate career at the University of Notre Dame, which almost guaranteed him a top 32 selection. A fracture in his left foot that required surgery was enough for teams to shy away from him until the Steelers made them their own with the 46th overall pick.
Along with Ryan Shazier, the Steelers were able to nab two first round quality athletes to add to their defense in order to contribute youth and speed to a squad that relied heavily on its veteran presence in the past. 2015 would prove to be a breakout year for Tuitt, who started in all fourteen games he appeared in this season, only missing weeks seven and eight due to a knee injury he would rebound from in no time at all. His 6.5 sacks were second only to fellow defensive end Cameron Heyward, and part of the 48 quarterback takedowns that were ranked third highest in the league.
How does this rank Tuitt among his peers? Two defensive ends were selected before him in last year’s draft. Houston Texans’, Jadeveon Clowney, and Kansas City Chief’s, Dee Ford, were both off the board by the time the first round ended.
As it has been displayed countless times in professional sports, a first round selection does not guarantee first round production. Clowney and Ford are prime examples of this fact.
Tuitt has statistically outperformed both of his higher selected counterparts. Clowney’s regular season totals came to nine starts in thirteen games with four and a half sacks and forty combined tackles, while Ford ended his regular season with five starts in fourteen appearances with four sacks and twenty three total tackles. If not for the two games that he missed this year, it is possible Tuitt’s numbers would be even more impressive than they already are.
The young defensive lineman ended his second regular season in stunning fashion last weekend against the Cleveland Browns in week seventeen. Bulldozing his way past Cleveland’s offensive line, Tuitt sacked quarterback Austin Davis twice in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, adding insult to devastating injury. With a win against the Browns and some help from the Buffalo Bills, the Steelers found themselves back in the post season for a second consecutive season.
While he may be young, this is not Tuitt’s first foray into post-December football. He made his fifth career start last January in a wildcard matchup against the Baltimore Ravens in which he recovered a fumble coughed up by Justin Forsett when his own offensive lineman was backed into him. The recovery gave the Steelers a chance to attempt a comeback early in the fourth quarter, but would be all for not as their season ended in a heartbreaking defeat at Heinz Field.
The Steelers travel to Cincinnati for a Saturday night brawl with the Bengals that has been nothing short of a heavyweight bout each time these teams have met. The Bengals will undoubtedly harbor much animosity towards Tuitt, as he was inadvertently responsible for the injury that has forced Andy Dalton to miss the past three games. Dalton attempted to tackle Tuitt after the latter made an interception deep in Cincy’s redzone when the thumb on his throwing hand collided with Tuitt’s knee, resulting in a fracture that forced AJ McCarron to fill in as quarterback.
The interception and ensuing injury greatly shifted momentum towards the Steelers, who were in desperate need of a win to stay in playoff contention. Pittsburgh left Paul Brown Stadium with a win, and greatly hindered the Bengal’s chance at a first round bye. Now Steelers’ Nation patiently awaits the third installment of a division rivalry that could be the Steelers first playoff victory in nearly five years.
Pressuring McCarron into uncomfortable situations will be key if the Steelers wish to prevail against the Bengals. With much attention drawn to Pittsburgh’s sack happy linebacking corps, and the nearly unblockable Heyward, this could leave Tuitt open to continue his onslaught of terror that has made him into a threat on defense. Though McCarron has played admirably in place of Dalton, a mixture of playoff jitters and a hulking 6’5″, 303 pound defensive end in his face are a prescription for inevitable mistakes.
Next: Steelers at Bengals: What to watch
Watch for Stephon Tuitt to continue his breakout sophomore campaign against the Bengals on Saturday night, which will hopefully end with the Steelers hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy for a seventh time.