Do It For Tuitt? Steelers D-line regroups minus injured star

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Tyson Alualu was well aware of the nickname long before the veteran defensive tackle arrived in Pittsburgh in 2017.

“It was always, this is ‘Blitzburgh,'” Alualu said on Wednesday. “You’re going to see a lot of blitzes.”

No matter who is in the lineup, something Alualu doesn’t expect to change with defensive end Stephon Tuitt out for the season after tearing a pectoral muscle against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 13. Tuitt was in the midst of the best football of his career when he left five plays into what became a 24-17 win. Alualu stepped in and played 25 effective snaps as the Steelers gave their season a needed jolt.

Doing it in an emergency situation is one thing. Doing it consistently is another. Yet Alualu is optimistic the snarl that’s defined Pittsburgh’s defense during the opening six weeks of the season — the Steelers are second in the NFL in takeaways (15) and tied for fifth in sacks (20) — won’t change with Tuitt sidelined until 2020.

“It’s on you to make plays within this defense,” Alualu said. “So I don’t think they’re asking me to do anything different because Tuitt went down. Of course it’s a blow to our team because of the type of playmaker he was. But they’re not asking me to do anything different. Whatever our game plan is, my job is to go out there and execute and just do my job to the best of my abilities.”

The 32-year-old isn’t concerned about being able to take on a bigger workload. He hasn’t played over half the defensive snaps over the course of a season since signing with the Steelers as a free agent in the spring of 2017. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Taking on a lesser role has kept him fresh. The proof came during training camp when rookies such as Isaiah Buggs would be gasping for breath while Alualu sprinted to the huddle ready for the next snap.

“It’s encouraging when they’re hurting and complaining,” Alualu said with a laugh. “I feel pretty good.”

So does Buggs. The sixth-round pick out of Alabama made the team after a solid if not spectacular camp but has yet to take the field during a regular game. That figures to change on Monday when the Steelers (2-4) host Miami (0-6). Waiting for an opportunity hasn’t been easy, but it has allowed Buggs to get a better understanding of the defense and his body. Asked to slim down, the 6-foot-3 frame Buggs has dropped from 306 pounds when he was taken with the 192nd overall pick in late April to somewhere around 290 by cutting out sodas and candy and limiting his “cheat” days to whatever is available at the team hotel on Saturday nights.

“They’re like, ‘Hey you want to be here, get the weight down,'” Buggs said. “This is a job. Got to treat it as such. That’s what I did each and every day. Worked hard to sustain that weight.”

The evidence is tangible. Buggs was soaked in sweat as he talked on Wednesday, not long after his daily trip to the locker room scale that’s been monitoring his progress. He hasn’t been this small in a while. He also hasn’t played meaningful competitive football in a while. Both of those things could change by Monday night.

“It’s been my job to you know, learn from older guys, so when time comes, it’s time for you to step up and play,” Buggs said. “Just learning first. Everybody has the opportunity to learn first before they get thrown in the water. Now the time is here and I’ve got to take advantage of it.”

He’s not the only one. Buggs is playing to prove he belongs in the NFL. Javon Hargrave is playing to prove he deserves to stay. The Steelers opted not to offer the fourth-year defensive tackle a contract extension over the summer even though Hargrave was coming off a breakthrough season in which he had a career-high 6½ sacks.

Tuitt’s injury will allow defensive coordinator Keith Butler to experiment with the versatile Hargrave, who fit the mold of a prototypical nose tackle when he was drafted in the third round in 2016 but has proved to be effective wherever he’s asked to squat his 6-foot-2, 305-pound frame on a given snap.

“It’s the NFL, you either grow or you don’t,” Hargrave said. “Every year I’ve gotten better and try to get better at what I do. I’m more confident than ever and just really ready to put it out there.”

NOTES: The NFL placed LB Anthony Chickillo on the Commissioner Exempt List on Wednesday. Chickillo was arrested by Pennsylvania State Police on Sunday on three misdemeanor charges stemming from an altercation with his girlfriend at a western Pennsylvania resort. Chickillo will be paid and is allowed into the team’s facility but cannot practice or play while on the exempt list. … The team signed linebacker Jayrone Elliott to fill Chickillo’s roster spot.