It was a long day for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense on Sunday. Not only did the unit allow 382 passing yards in a 26-17 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Steelers played much or all of the game without five defensive starters. Left cornerback Joe Haden and inside linebacker Devin Bush Jr. never even suited up for the game, with both having suffered groin injuries at Friday’s practice. But that was only the beginning of what would be a bad day in terms of injuries.
In the first quarter, Steelers starting nose tackle Tyson Alualu had his ankle rolled up on by a teammate and had to be carted off the field. Soon afterwards, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Alualu had suffered a fractured ankle and that more tests would be forthcoming tomorrow.
After the game, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that it’s a season-ending injury and that Alualu will have surgery on Monday.
It’s a huge blow for the Steelers defense, as the 34-year-old former first-round pick has played some of the best football of his career since signing with Pittsburgh in 2017. In fact, earlier this year, Pro Football Focus ranked him as one of the 32 best interior defenders in the NFL, alongside fellow Steelers defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
That helps explain why his Steelers teammates had such a strong reaction when Alualu re-signed with the Steelers in March after initially agreeing to a two-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that drafted him No. 10 overall in 2010.
It also explains Heyward’s reaction to the injury after the game.
“That hurt,” said the Steelers defensive captain during his postgame press conference. “To be honest with you, I wasn’t ready for that…. I thought Tyson was destined for one of his best seasons,” he added, before noting that in addition to his play, Alualu serves another important role on the team.
“I’ve said it before, but he’s the ‘good cop’ to my ‘bad cop,’ advised Heyward. “He settles the group down … and we’re going to miss him out on the field.”
Indeed the Steelers will miss him, especially since Pittsburgh is suddenly pretty thin on the interior of its defensive line. That’s because Tuitt is currently on the injured reserve list and won’t be available until Week 4 at Green Bay, at the earliest. Meanwhile, second-year lineman Carlos Davis missed the Raiders game with a knee injury.
But Heyward thinks the remainder of the team’s defensive line unit will be able to pick up the slack.
“They are going to have to—and they will,” he added. “Coach (Karl) Dunbar will get us ready. Anytime we’ve had injuries before we’ve had guys step up,” noting that when second-year defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs went down for a few plays during the game against the Raiders, Heyward had to move over to play nose tackle.
“We have to see what we can do. (Chris) Wormley played well today, Isaiahh Loudermilk got his first taste of regular season football, Buggs has got to get healthy, hopefully we can get Carlos (Davis) back, and a guy like Henry Mondeaux can come back to us,” he said, making reference to the practice squad defensive lineman. “Then we’ll see where Tuitt’s at after this game,” he concluded. “With the injuries, guys have to step up.”
Indeed even more guys will have to step up if T.J. Watt’s groin injury—suffered late in the first half against the Raiders—turns out to be serious. So far, there have been no reports that it will be an extended-term issue. On the other hand, it was enough to knock him out of the game, after the Steelers first characterized him as “questionable” to return.
Never mind that Pittsburgh’s pass rush looked noticeably diminished after Watt left the game, by which time he had already recorded four total tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, per the NFL.com box score.
If Watt misses game time, second-year man Alex Highsmith and free agent acquisition Melvin Ingram III will fill the starting roles, with former Champs Sports sales representative Jamir Jones serving as the primary backup.
The other potentially significant Steelers injury occurred in the final seconds of the game, when wide receiver Diontae Johnson was hurt at the end of a meaningless play, when the outcome was no longer in doubt. Per Teresa Varley of Steelers.com, head coach Mike Tomlin described it as a knee injury, but as yet nothing has been reported as to the severity of the injury.
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