One of the bigger storylines with the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers unfolded last week when starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt was placed on Injured Reserve, ending his season.
The 26-year-old defender had 3.5 sacks through six games and was on pace to shatter his previous tackles-for-loss season high with six through as many games. (His previous high had been eight, matched several times through his previous five season in the league.)
With Tuitt on the shelf, there’s been no lack of rumors as to how the Steelers will cope with his absence. I’ve personally seen everything from ridiculous trades to retired players, or even practice squad hopefuls, as potential fill-ins for the promising young player.
However, everyone appears to be overlooking the obvious choice, and no, it’s not Tyson Alualu.
The reason Hargrave is overlooked is that many fans or would-be analysts are pigeonholing the fourth-year pro as a nose tackle, a position that’s infrequently used as often as it used to be when the Steelers were a pure 3-4 defense. These days, the Steelers often deploy more defensive backs, or in the case of defending a run-heavy team such as the Baltimore Ravens, we’ve seen an extra linebacker on the field as well.
The casualty in most cases? Removing the nose tackle.
Gone are the days where Casey Hampton terrorized the center of an opponent’s offensive line, eating up blocks and closing gaps. Today’s pass-happy NFL sees quarterbacks getting rid of the ball faster than ever, usually to a third or fourth wide receiver, or in many cases, an athletic tight end.
To defend against those attacks, the Steelers are a nickel, dime, or even “dollar” defense, using as many as 5, 6, or 7 DBs in their schemes. When this occurs, and even when it doesn’t (and there are four linebackers out there) we can usually see only two defensive linemen; not three.
Tuitt’s success over the years has limited Hargrave from seeing the field in large batches. While it may seem obvious that a backup defensive end such as Tyson Alualu should be the next man up, we’ve already witnessed patterns in past seasons where that’s simply not the case. Yes, Alualu will see an uptick in playing time, but he won’t be counted on to shoulder the load by himself, as he’s still a vital component to help rotate and keep others such as Heyward fresh for the long haul.
In fact, in two games that Tuitt missed last season, it was Hargrave who saw the major uptick in playing time. Traditionally seeing anywhere between 30-50% of the defensive snaps when everyone else is healthy, Hargrave jumped into the range of playing 75-80% of the game with Tuitt down.
That’s including Alualu’s increased presence as well as snaps for the recently re-signed L.T. Walton, who was with the Steelers in 2018 but wasn’t retained in free agency this offseason. Alualu’s time rose roughly 20% as well, with Walton, and Dan McCullers, each seeing snaps where they seldom entered the field.
While Walton helps as a depth piece for special teams and in practice, and also had his own spell as a starter when Cameron Heyward went on IR in 2016, it’s Dan McCullers who stands to see his role increased as well.
The Steelers haven’t shied away from using “Big Dan” in 2019, and while many feel he’s never lived up to his large stature, the mammoth nose tackle has earned contracts in each of the last two years with improved play. Pittsburgh has been rolling out the “Shade Tree” roughly 10% of the time this season to help clog things up on the frontlines and he could be in for more playing time, even an extra 5-10 snaps over center, to help shift Hargrave over to exclusively help fill Tuitt’s absence.
Hargrave also makes a lot of practical sense as the better pass rusher of the group between he, Alualu, McCullers, and Walton. With a pair of sacks already in 2019 and building on a career-high 6.5 last season, the small college underdog has proven to be a player with a lot of potential: who also happens to be in a contract year and looking for that potential to get a nice payday in 2020.
That’s why I’ve pegged the Steelers as standing pat with their “Standard is the Standard” mantra in Stephon’s stead. While Tuitt’s loss is a definite blow to a defense on the rise, there’s no reason to look outward for any quick fixes when several players on the depth chart can keep the ship afloat.
This Monday look for Hargrave to feast with his additional snaps, while Alualu rotates around the line Dan McCullers possibly seeing his highest defensive-side snaps ever.