Tim Benz: For Steelers, Stephon Tuitt’s ‘revenge tour’ better go well
It’s our third installment of “Stairway to Seven.” Seven Steelers in seven days that could elevate the team from what it was a year ago to a potential seventh Super Bowl championship.
Not the Killer B’s. Not Cam Heyward. Not the standout offensive line. Guys who have more to give that can help close the gap between the Steelers and another title which has eluded them for a decade now.
Today’s nominee is defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
There’s very little to dislike about Tuitt. From the standpoint of effort, potential and personality, he’s just one of those guys you want to see thrive.
The 25-year-old Notre Dame product is usually the one to point out whatever there is to dislike. Unfortunately, for a player of his caliber and fiber, it’s more than it should be.
He’s scratched because of health too much, and his productivity doesn’t match his contract. In 2015, Tuitt’s first year as a starter, he had 39 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks. Over the last two years, he had just 47 tackles and seven sacks combined.
That’s in large part because he missed six complete games and large chunks of others with injuries. Tuitt’s knee cost him two games in 2016 and may have hampered him for more.
The same can be said for last year’s injury: a torn biceps on the second play of the opener against Cleveland. That cost him two full games and most of Week 1. The injury made him play with — as he describe it — an “arm and a quarter all season.”
Then a back injury cropped up, which sidelined him for Weeks 7 and 8 as well.
Want to see what Tuitt looks like when he’s healthy? Go back and watch those first two snaps against the Browns. It looked like he was going to ruin the game and make it unplayable for four quarters.
Then he got hurt.
In Tuitt’s words, he wants to treat 2018 as a “revenge tour.” Before last season, I talked to Tuitt about the state of the Steelers’ pass rush and how it needed to improve.
“Do you know how many pressures I had (in 2016)?” Tuitt looked at me like he wanted to snap me in two. Which, by the way, he could, even with just that “one-quarter” of an arm he referenced.
But he wasn’t mad at me or the question. He was mad at the memory.
“Those are plays I’ve got to finish,” he said.
The Steelers pass rush improved last season. When healthy, Tuitt was a part of that. He and Cam Heyward had 102 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the most of any interior defensive line tandem in the AFC.
But don’t get too swayed by that Steelers’ record-setting sack total. It was definitely bloated. If the outside linebackers are going to combine for less than 20 sacks again, then Tuitt and Hayward need to finish the job more often. Heyward did his part with 12. Now it’s time for Tuitt to keep up.
He also could help improve the run defense, which started to waver as the season dragged along last year.
Some Pittsburgh football fans have balked at the notion of signing Le’Veon Bell to a five-year, $60 million contract. Yet that’s what Tuitt signed before last season. Not counting Ryan Shazier, only Heyward and Joe Haden will make more against the cap on defense than Tuitt this year. That’s even after Tuitt agreed to a restructure of $8 million in February.
For at least the first two snaps of it in September, he looked as it he was going to be worth every penny. But that pace didn’t last.
If healthy, and as vengeful as he claims to be, Tuitt playing up to that level of buy-in from the franchise may impact the defense — and help hide its other shortcomings — more than any of the other experiments coordinator Keith Butler is trying at the second and third levels in 2018.