Steelers deepest position hinges on the decision of one player

The Pittsburgh Steelers could have one of the deepest interior defensive lines in the NFL, but not having Stephon Tuitt could certainly change that. 

After finishing as a top-six defense for four straight seasons from 2017 to 2020, the Pittsburgh Steelers took a massive step in the wrong direction in 2021. There really wasn’t a good reason for why this was the case.

The Steelers were getting their former top-10 pick back in Devin Bush at the linebacker position, and they added another former Pro Bowl linebacker in Joe Schobert just before the start of the season. Despite these changes, it didn’t take fans long to notice that something was off.

Pittsburgh’s once impenetrable run defense was reduced to ashes in 2021. Not only did the Steelers defense surrender more rushing yards on the season than any NFL team last year, but they also were dead last in the league in yards allowed per attempt — giving up a whopping 5.0 per carry on the ground, according to Team Rankings.

While it didn’t help that Tyson Alualu landed on injured reserve early in the year, Stephon Tuitt seemed to be the common denominator. Tuitt spent the summer of 2020 dealing with the tragic loss of his brother from a hit-and-run incident. He ended up missing the entire 2021 season.

This was a huge blow to the Steelers. In 2020, Tuitt had a breakout campaign that included 11.0 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, and 25 quarterback hits. Additionally, he has been one of the best interior run defenders in the NFL since entering the league, and he graded out as one of the 24 best defensive linemen for four straight years prior to sitting out the 2021 season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Steelers DL could be just average or great

The team isn’t giving up hope just yet, as Kevin Colbert expressed that there have been some positive talks about his return, but he didn’t have an answer for the media just yet. If Tuitt does decide to come back to football, this defensive line could be the deepest group in the league. If he doesn’t, we could be looking at just a very average unit.

Though many fans had a hard time getting behind the DeMarvin Leal selection in the third round of the NFL Draft, I thought this was an excellent decision by the Steelers. Leal was once considered a top-10 talent before average testing numbers and a step back in his 2021 tape caused teams to drop him.

Even considering this, Leal was the 57th-ranked player on my big board; yet the Steelers were able to snag him with the 84th overall pick. While he does have some tweener traits in a not-so-good way, Leal is nearly 6’4” with over an 80” wingspan, and I view him as a 5-technique backup to Tuitt, Cameron Heyward, and Chris Wormley.

The Leal selection gives the Steelers added insurance if Tuitt does decide to call it quits or if the organization must move on. While I like this pick, either way, I would like it even more if Tuitt returns. If he does, this group of interior linemen truly is seven players deep with two remarkable players at the top in Heyward and Tuitt anchoring the DL.

We have to prepare ourselves for the fact that Stephon Tuitt may not be returning to football. While I think the Steelers would survive without him, his presence could be the difference between having a stellar interior defensive line or an average one in 2022.