Tyson Alualu plays understated but valuable role for Steelers
Cameron Heyward is the captain. Stephon Tuitt the highest-paid. Joe Haden has the most Pro Bowl berths. Still others — T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and more — are more recognized by fans.
But when it comes to NFL experience, none of Tyson Alualu’s defensive teammates have him beat.
The role for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 4 defensive lineman is about as quiet and understated as the man himself. But Alualu’s value showed during Year 1 with the Steelers in 2017, and he’s back in the same role for his second season.
“It’s no secret that you just get better at anything with experience,” Alualu said before a recent practice. “Being in the NFL for a while and just seeing all the different things that go on and just learning how to adjust to those things, there’s value in that.”
Alualu’s next regular-season game will be his 127th in the NFL. That’s more than any of the Steelers’ other defensive players and trails only Ben Roethlisberger (200), Ramon Foster (130) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (130) on the team overall.
He’s played for six head coaches (including interims), four defensive coordinators and six position coaches. So playing for another position coach this season (Karl Dunbar replaced longtime Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell) is nothing to Alualu, whose first seven NFL seasons were spent on mostly poor Jacksonville Jaguars teams.
“Being around a lot of changes, you know how to adapt to different coaching,” Alualu said. “That definitely helped the transition learning a new team and new defense and being around new players and new position coach these past two years.”
It took just three snaps into last season for the Steelers to be glad they gave Alualu a two-year, $6 million contract in the spring of 2017. When Tuitt suffered a biceps injury on the first series of the first game Sept. 10 in Cleveland, the Steelers didn’t have to turn to a middling veteran such as Cam Thomas or Ricardo Matthews as they had in previous seasons.
They didn’t have to resort to moving someone out of position or playing an unproven rookie, either. Instead, it was a former No. 10 overall draft pick with more than 90 NFL starts: Alualu.
Alualu held down the proverbial fort over the ensuing 2 ¾ games in Tuitt’s stead and again for two more games the following month. On a smaller scale, the Steelers’ trust in Alualu allowed them to take pressure off Heyward, who played the fewest percentage of the Steelers’ defensive snaps last year than he had in any of his three previous healthy seasons (according to footballoutsiders.com).
Counting his start in the regular-season finale against Cleveland, Alualu played more than 44 percent of the Steelers’ defensive snaps — including some each at each of the five positions the team uses on its defensive line: left and right end and nose tackle in the base defense, and both interior spots in passing downs.
“As they say here, the more you can do,” Alualu said. “In this defense, you play D-tackle. You play D-end, nose tackle, and in subpackages, you have got to play over center. (Versatility) only helps your chances of helping out this team.”
Despite it being only his second NFL season in which he was not a full-time starter, Alualu tied a career high and was fifth on the team with four sacks. He added 39 total tackles and was seventh on the team in quarterback hurries/pressures (as measured by the Steelers).
Content with his role at age 31 and happy to be in Pittsburgh after seven nonwinning seasons with the Jaguars, Alualu is a valuable insurance chip for the Steelers in the case of injury to Heyward, Tuitt or nose tackle Javon Hargrave.
“When I came here, I knew that I was coming into a good group,” Alualu said, “so I was just excited to be part of that and try to help them do better because I know they do the same for me. That group has exceeded my expectations as to who they were as people and players. So doing what I can to support them, it’s a good feeling.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.