Was Stephon Tuitt the Steelers best defensive lineman in 2019?

Stephon Tuitt Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Stephon Tuitt Pittsburgh Steelers (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /

The Steelers have one of the league’s most established defensive lines, but here’s why Stephon Tuitt’s performance in 2019 may have been the most impressive.

There is a common saying around NFL circles: ‘The best ability is availability’. I don’t necessarily disagree with this. A player’s ability to stay on the football field is what has allowed players like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown to have such long and lustrous careers with the Steelers.

Unfortunately, Stephon Tuitt has not had the satisfaction of staying on the football field. Now entering his seventh NFL season, Tuitt has still yet to play in more than 14 games since his rookie year. And that is incredibly unfortunate, considering the promise he has shown over the last three seasons.

Sports Injury Predictor has kept track of all of his bumps and bruises. In 2017, Stephon Tuitt dealt with a lower lumbar sprain and a hand injury before the start of the season. In 2018, Tuitt missed played through a lingering elbow hyperextension, and last year his season was cut short after a pectoral tear that required surgery.

Production when healthy was not an issue for Tuitt

Though Tuitt lacks the ability to stay on the football field like many of his counterparts, he doesn’t lack the talent to be one of the best players in a Steelers uniform.

In the second half of the 2018 season, Tuitt had come on really strong – earning 5.5 sacks, 7 tackles for a loss, and 16 quarterback hits in the last 9 games. In 2019, he was even better before landing on IR. Here’s a per-game breakdown of how Tuitt stacked up to Cameron Heyward and Javon Hargrave along Steelers defensive line last season:

If you remember the first five games from last season, Tuitt was utterly dominant in most of his performances – earning 3.5 sacks and 6 tackles for a loss before getting injured just 5 snaps into his Week 6 performance against the Chargers.

From a production standpoint, Tuitt was much closer to All-Pro Cameron Heyward than to defensive tackle Javon Hargrave – even topping Heyward in some departments.

In May, Cinthia Frelund wrote an article about each teams’ most underappreciated player. Stephon Tuitt topped the chart for the Steelers. Tuitt’s 14.1 pressure percentage, when lined up at interior defensive line, was second in the league only to Za’Darius Smith.

In addition to all of this, Tuitt ultimately graded out as the NFL’s 6th best interior defender last season, according to Pro Football Focus. His 89.1 overall grade crushed his 2018 grade by 7.2 overall points as he finished ahead of players like Chris Jones and DeForest Buckner.

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We have now seen three straight seasons of flashes from Tuitt where he would be a dominant player for a few games in a row before suffering some sort of injury. If he can stay healthy in 2020, there’s no telling what he might be able to do.