Stephon Tuitt believes greatness is in the future for Steelers defense, too
February 16, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt with an interception in December against the Cincinnati Bengals.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers had the No. 1 offense in the AFC and one of the best in the NFL because of an explosive passing attack and a running game that had two backs who, at different points, led the conference in rushing.
Now, at least one young member of their evolving defense thinks the Steelers can have the same dominant unit on the other side of the ball next season.
That’s the conclusion defensive end Stephon Tuitt arrived at after watching the defense do a good job shutting down the Cincinnati Bengals and Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos for most of two postseason games. And Tuitt will have a big impact if that happens.
“We got nothing but high hopes,” Tuitt said. “We see the future looking very bright. You see what we can do. I personally believe we can be the No. 1 defense in the run and the pass and we’re going to do it.”
Tuitt is one of the rising stars on the defense. He combines with Cam Heyward to give them a defensive end tandem that could compare favorably to the duo of Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel that fueled the team’s Super Bowl defenses in 2008 and 2010.
Heyward (7) and Tuitt (6½) not only finished 1-2 in sacks in 2015, but their combined total of 13½ also ranked fifth among defensive-line tandems in the AFC. But, of the four duos in front of them, each played in 4-3 defenses where the end acts as the edge rusher. In the Steelers’ 3-4 defense, the outside linebackers are the edge rusher. The ends are more like defensive tackles.
That was one of the reasons the Steelers finished with 48 sacks, third most in the NFL. The increased pressure also helped result in 30 takeaways, tied for most in the AFC and nine more than they managed in 2014.
“We got a chance to put all the pieces together,” said Tuitt, a No. 2 draft choice in 2014 from Notre Dame. “Everybody got a chance to learn together, to learn how each other played. We got a chance to show what we really are like, where we left off, and I can’t wait to pick up from there.”
Then he added, “I want people to be afraid to play us.”
Tuitt said that was the prevailing feeling among the players after they had time to get over the disappointment of their 23-16 divisional playoff loss in Denver, a game in which they appeared to be in control until Fitzgerald Toussaint’s fumble with 10 minutes remaining.
“We played that game the way you’re supposed to play that game; unfortunately we made a mistake,” Tuitt said the other day during an appearance at the Pittsburgh International Car Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. “But I went from me being mad to me saying we got a very powerful team in the future. We’re going to have a very fast, physical team. I can’t wait to training camp, to put all the pieces together to keep this train moving forward.”
Tuitt, though, realizes the Steelers didn’t stop the Broncos after Toussaint’s fumble, giving up a 13-play, 65-yard drive that took nearly seven minutes and resulted in Denver’s only touchdown.
But he said he knows he witnessed something “amazing” when Manning systematically picked apart the Steelers by recognizing their defenses and changing calls at the line of scrimmage during the go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. And the Steelers did nothing to stop it.
“Everybody knows Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning, but we had him not being Peyton Manning for a good 3½ quarters,” Tuitt said. “But we gave him one more chance that gave him a breath of life, and it was the weirdest thing. You could feel the energy change. It was amazing to see, him coming up to the line of scrimmage and seeing what we were coming with.
“We had him stopped all game and we gave him one breath of life and we see this legendary guy drive the ball to help his team score a touchdown. Unfortunately, we were on the bad end of the stick.”
Coming so close still bothers Tuitt, but not as much as the first couple weeks after the game. Now he can’t wait to get going on next season because he thinks the defense can be as dominating in the regular season as it was for most of those games against the Bengals and Broncos.
“We know what the taste feels like to almost be there, to watch a team we had beat win the Super Bowl,” Tuitt said. “I know that’s in everybody’s mind, and they can’t wait to get back on the field to show that.”
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.
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