PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers will have to dig their way out of an early season hole without defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
The team placed Tuitt on injured reserve on Tuesday, two days after Tuitt tore a pectoral muscle in the first quarter of a 24-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers . The six-year veteran was in the midst of his best season, racking up 3½ sacks and six tackles for loss in just over five games for a defense that ranked among the NFL leaders in sacks (third) and takeaways (second), one of the few bright spots during a 2-4 start.
"I thought Tuitt was having a heck of a year," defensive tackle Cam Heyward said. "You never want to see a guy go down but from offseason until where he got, he had made a lot of progression and I'm proud of him. I like to think he was having a Pro Bowl, All-Pro year. Now he's got a setback but he's going to bounce back in a big way."
Heyward knows what Tuitt is going through. He tore a pectoral muscle in November 2016 and missed the rest of the season as the Steelers advanced to the AFC championship game before falling to New England.
"There will be some things you have to get used to," Heyward said. "The first week sucks. You have to sleep sitting straight up. But it's going to be a battle back. It's not something you come back from in a day. It's going to take a lot of commitment on his part, which I'm sure he'll take care of. And he'll be better for it. You're not going to the grave with this. This is something you can come back from and be a better player because of it."
Tyson Alualu took over for Tuitt after Tuitt left and will become a regular part of a rotation that includes Heyward, Jayvon Hargrave, Daniel McCullers and rookie sixth-round pick Isaiah Buggs. Asked how he replaces Tuitt, defensive coordinator Keith Butler shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know," Butler said. "Somebody inside is going to have to step up. Stephon has been playing real well for us and doing a great job for us. A factor that offenses had to deal with. It's going to be hard to replace that but somebody is going to have to step up and help us out in that situation."
Alualu played a season-high 25 snaps against the Chargers. The 32-year-old is capable against the run but lacks Tuitt's pass-rushing acumen. The 6-foot-7, 352-pound McCullers can be a handful in the middle but has mostly been an enigma during his six-year career.
"Dan is a big guy," Butler said. "They turned him loose one time (against the Chargers), Philip (Rivers) saw him, too and got rid of the ball as quick as he could. I don't blame him. You see a big man like that fixing to run at you and put you on the ground you're going to let that ball go. We'll see how Dan comes along. Not just Dan, Hargrave has to step up too, Cam is already there."
The Steelers re-signed L.T. Walton to take over the roster spot created by Tuitt's injury. Walton spent the first four seasons of his career in Pittsburgh from 2015-18. He signed with Buffalo during the offseason but was cut when rosters were trimmed to 53 players at the end of training camp.
The defensive line has been perhaps the best part of a defense that has already created 15 turnovers, matching the club's entire total from 2018. Pittsburgh is again a threat to lead the NFL in sacks for a third straight season. Any chance the Steelers make inroads on first-place Baltimore (4-2) in the underwhelming AFC North will rely on how the defensive front copes without its most disruptive player.
"Depth is still to be questioned," Heyward said. "We'll see having Buggs and L.T. here. Tyson has a lot of ability and we have a lot of faith in what he's going to do. We have to hold down the fort."
Pittsburgh is off this week and hosts Miami on Monday, Oct. 28.