The Steelers defense already has All-Pro players in T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Cameron Heyward. Who is next in line after this group?
It’s hard not to get excited about what the Steelers defense has going for them right now. Minkah Fitzpatrick lead the NFL in takeaways last season at the age of 23, while Cameron Heyward made his second first-team All-Pro in the last three seasons. T.J. Watt is arguably the most valuable edge defender in the league when you factor in his age and was a runner up for the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2019.
These are clearly Pittsburgh’s top three defenders at this point in time. But who comes next on the list?
This is where a lot of debate will start to arise, and there is a case to be made for a handful of players here. Joe Haden is coming off one of his best seasons in the league that consisted of 5 interceptions as he allowed just 53.7 percent of passes to be completed his direction.
Steven Nelson is also in contention for this honor. While he didn’t get the takeaways as Haden did, he allowed an even lower completion percentage, and his 65.8 passer rating when targeted was phenomenal last season.
Meanwhile, Devin Bush is a player that has the potential to take over as Pittsburgh’s fourth-best defender, but he isn’t quite there yet.
While my candidate may not be the popular choice, it may turn out to be the correct one. I think Stephon Tuitt is the fourth-best defender on the Steelers.
Tuitt has been phenomenal when healthy, and his play through the first five weeks last season was arguably better than Heyward’s. Tuitt has now earned 9.0 sacks in his last 14 games (excluding the Chargers game where he was injured early in the first quarter).
Though the Steelers possessed a very good defense last year with Tuitt gone for a majority of the season, we have seen how dominant he can look when he’s playing fully healthy. Unfortunately, Tuitt has never been able to start a 16-game season in his first 6 years in the NFL. Even when he was on the field, the second-round draft choice has played through knee, bicep, back, and elbow injuries.
His latest was a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2019 campaign 10 games too early. Heyward suffered the same injury in November of 2016 and had his season cut short. However, he came back the following season with the best year of his career – posting 12.0 sacks and earning first-team All-Pro honors.
Tuitt now has an extensive injury history, and he may never become Cam Heyward in the NFL. Still, it’s important to remember that Tuitt just turned 27 years old in May, and still on pace with Heyward at this point in his career. If he can stay healthy all season, I believe he will be Pittsburgh’s fourth-best defender in 2020.