PITTSBURGH -- Tyson Alualu can’t help but laugh when he sees his defensive line teammates hurting a little after practice, complaining about the toll football is taking on their young bodies.
As a Cal product drafted by Jacksonville in the first round of the 2010 draft, Alualu's body has nearly a decade's wear on him, but he tries not to show it.
With a torn pectoral muscle sending DE Stephon Tuitt, who was in the midst of a breakout season, to injured reserve, Alualu’s fitness will come in handy as he’ll jump from playing 20-30 snaps a game to upward of 50.
“When you can go out there and your body feels good, it’s always encouraging to have that,” Alualu said. “Being in my 10th year and being able to compete against all these rookies, and my body feels good, and I thank God for that every day. Really, when the opportunities come, you’ve just got to make the most of it.”
Alualu is no stranger to this role after stepping in for an injured Tuitt a handful times in 2017. In a little more than two seasons with the Steelers, Alualu has seven starts, giving him a total of 95 career starts.
“Tys is a vet in this game," fourth-year defensive lineman Javon Hargrave said. "... He knows what it takes. He’s seen all this before.”
Alualu was a workhorse his first five seasons in Jacksonville, playing in all 79 games during that time. A full-time starter the first four seasons in Jacksonville, Alualu lost his job when the Jaguars signed Red Bryant prior to the 2014 season, but he still played more than 40% of the defensive snaps that year.
After signing with the Steelers in 2017, Alualu took a step back in production and playing time. He had a career-low 22 tackles a season ago and didn’t have a single sack after recording four his first year in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers signed him to a two-year extension to keep with the team through 2020, a move that becomes even more crucial with the injury to Tuitt.
Alualu, who has one sack this season, confirmed he took all first-team reps in the base defense during Wednesday’s practice and was part of the rotation along with Hargrave when the unit moved into nickel.
“You really love to see that guy that can come in and play left end, nose tackle and right end,” defensive line coach Karl Dunbar said. “He was our utility guy who can come in and play nose tackle, left end and right end. He was our utility guy and now he becomes a staple at left defensive end.”
At 6-foot-3, 304 pounds, Alualu is shorter than Tuitt, and his skill set is a bit different from Tuitt's -- a 6-foot-5, 310-pound man who can “run like a deer,” per Dunbar. But Alualu doesn’t expect anything to change for him in this increased role.
“I don’t think they’re asking me to do anything different because Tuitt went down,” Alualu said. “Of course, it’s a big blow to our team because of the type of playmaker he was, but I don’t think things change. They’re not asking me to do anything different.”
Absorbing the loss of Tuitt is hardly just Alualu’s responsibility. Buggs, who hasn’t been active this season, will likely make his debut Monday night against the Miami Dolphins (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). The team also re-signed L.T. Walton, a Steelers 2015 sixth-round draft pick.
But the pass rush, which ranks eighth in the league with a 48.4% win rate, won’t just come from the defensive line.
“... We are a group that doesn’t care where [the pass rush] comes from, whether it is defensive line or outside linebackers, inside linebackers,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “As a matter of fact, we take a conscious effort to make sure that we have an opportunity to spread some of that over multiple positions in an effort to be a moving target and that is why even secondary guys at times, [cornerback] Mike Hilton and others, get involved in the rush game.
“We pride ourselves in having a versatile rush and bringing a multitude of people from a number of positions. Thus, might be the case as we work to minimize the absence of Stephon Tuitt.”
But T.J. Watt's injury could hamper that plan, at least temporarily. The linebacker is dealing with an abdominal injury sustained against the Chargers that has limited him in practice, and his status for Monday’s game is still unclear. His 28% pass rush win rate is second in the league behind Dallas Cowboys DE Robert Quinn. After that, fellow outside linebacker Bud Dupree checks in at No. 39 with a 16.5% win rate. Tuitt led the Steelers' defensive line with a 12.9% win rate.
“Tuitt is a special type of player," Dupree said. "You really can’t replace that type of guy, but just having backup guys like Tyson is a tremendous boost for any team.”