One of the biggest questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line entering the 2020 season was how well Stephon Tuitt would rebound from a torn pectoral muscle.
The injury limited Tuitt to nine games in 2019 and, with three years left on his contract, he needed to prove he was worth his $9 million base salary.
Tuitt erased any doubts about his health and his paycheck by getting at least a half sack in four of the first five games. He made a career-high 15 starts, missing one game because of covid-19, and established a career benchmark with 11 sacks, which ranked second on the team.
Tuitt’s success also was partially because of the extra attention Cameron Heyward received at defensive tackle. Heyward, who had 29 sacks combined over the previous three seasons, had his total drop to four, his fewest in a full season as a starter. But Heyward’s continual presence in the pocket contributed to the Steelers leading the NFL with 56 sacks.
The bookends of the Steelers defensive line are under contract for at least two more years — Heyward has four years to go on his deal — which will provide the organization time to fill in the pieces elsewhere.
When nose tackle Javon Hargrave Jersey took the free agent riches offered by the Philadelphia Eagles, Tyson Alualu moved into a starting role for his first time in four years with the Steelers. In his 11th NFL season, Alualu brought a steady presence to the Steelers while moving from defensive end, and he had two sacks and a career-high five pass breakups.
The Steelers, though, find themselves in a similar position at nose tackle as last offseason. Alualu will be an unrestricted free agent in March, and he will turn 34 before the season begins. Alualu showed he still is a productive player in a limited role in the base defense, and the Steelers could try to coax him back with another two-year contract, which would be his third with the team.
If Alualu doesn’t return, the Steelers can try to plug in Carlos Davis, who appeared in seven games but played just 54 defensive snaps as a rookie. Davis earned a roster spot late in the season over another former seventh-rounder, Isaiah Buggs Jersey, who was inactive for three of the final four games of the regular season and for the wild-card playoff game against the Cleveland Browns.
The defensive line depth also includes Henry Mondeaux, an undrafted free agent who made his NFL debut against Tennessee and played in the final 11 games of the year. Although he was used sparingly on defense, Mondeaux was a regular contributor on special teams after his promotion from the practice squad.
The Steelers also signed defensive linemen Calvin Taylor and Demarcus Christmas to futures contracts after the season ended. Taylor (14 weeks) and Christmas (nine) were members of the practice squad last season.
Chris Wormley, who had one sack in 13 games, is the team’s other unrestricted free agent on the defensive line.
Offseason outlook: Defensive line
Cameron Heyward Jersey, 4 years left on contract, $14.55 million cap hit for 2021
Stephon Tuitt Jersey, 2 years left on contract, $14, 940,750 cap hit for 2021
Carlos Davis Jersey, 3 years left on contract, $803,376 cap hit or 2021
Isaiah Buggs, 2 years left on contract, $892,158 cap hit for 2021
Henry Mondeaux Jersey, 1 year left on contract, $780,000 cap hit for 2021
Others under contract
Demarcus Christmas, 1 year left on contract, $780,000 cap hit for 2021
Calvin Taylor Jersey, 1 year left on contract, $660,000 cap hit for 2021
Tyson Alualu Jersey, unrestricted, $3.625 million cap hit for 2020
Chris Wormley Jersey, unrestricted, $2.133 million cap hit for 2020
Tomorrow: Inside linebackers