Monday Night Tale of Two D-Ends

Stephon Tuitt's ready to make his first Steelers start opposite the game's best at his posiition.

Are you ready?

"Am I ready?" asked Stephon Tuitt. "I've got to keep working hard. The game's not till Monday."

That was Thursday, a day after Tuitt became the first rookie starter on the Steelers' defensive line in 13 years.

Today, with the Houston Texans in town for a Monday night game, Tuitt figures to be ready.

He has no choice. The 3-3 Steelers need to beat the 3-3 Houston Texans just to at least keep Pittsburgh fans off the ledge.

"Oh, my gosh a win would be great for the city night now," Tuitt said. "Just to build some consistency right now would be great. We have the talent. We have talent. We have the people to do it. Just got to do it."

Tuitt came to the Steelers by way of Notre Dame, and he went there by way of Monroe, Ga., where his mother had moved the family from Miami, Fla.

Grandma had moved the family to Florida from the West Indies. The dialect is detectable in Tuitt, who didn't play football until high school. And that was a story of determination in itself, because Tuitt defied his mother and walked 12 miles to his first practice. By the time he got there, practice was over.

The coach took in the young giant anyway.

"I missed everything, but at the same time I gained so much by doing that," Tuitt said. "Coach (Matt) Fligg gave me an opportunity and I told him I'd take it, and this is where I am now."

And this is where the Steelers are: starting their first rookie defensive lineman since Casey Hampton.

Why is it so hard for a rookie to start on this defensive line?

"Because you have so much to prove," Tuitt said. "You hear about the other guys who have played so many games so many years; they already have their medals. Being a new guy, you've got to earn your medal. To earn that you have to practice hard, and when you get your opportunities, you have to take them."

Tuitt has practiced hard, and, because of an injury to nose tackle Steve McLendon, he will get his opportunity tonight. The Steelers hope its the start of a new era in the way Aaron Smith was the start of a new era at the turn of the century.

Same number. Same position. Different teammates.

Smith was the strong-side run defender for the last Steelers championship team that had Hampton on one side of him and LaMarr Woodley on the other. They could easily run and stuff the flowing outside zone teams that are giving the Steelers so much trouble these days.

The Texans are another, and in Arian Foster they have a running back who's averaged more rushing yards per game (91.7) than any other AFC back since 2010. Foster's 54 touchdowns from scrimmage rank first in the NFL since 2010.

"Yeah, they have a great running back who's able to pick apart a defense if somebody's out of their gap," Tuitt said. "We've just got to pay attention to the keys, do our assignment, stay focused, don't do too much. They always tell you, 'Don't do too much. Do your job.' So whenever I go out there I'm going to do my job, do it the best way I know how, and be a help to the other 10 guys on the team."

So Cam Thomas will move to the nose, and the only other help for Cameron Heyward on the line will be a rookie. It really doesn't sound like a great matchup tonight for the Steelers.

"It’s a challenge for all of us," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "They have a great back and they've got a wonderfully solid blocking front. They run the ball and they run it well and we’re going to have to stop that to win the game."

Last week against a similar offensive attack, the Steelers allowed the Cleveland Browns to rush for 158 yards. In the opener, the Browns rushed for 191 yards. The Steelers rank 23rd in allowing 4.4 yards per carry. The Texans rush at a 4.2 clip.

What will be the key for this patchwork Steelers defensive line?

"Well, I don’t think there’s any mystery about that," LeBeau said. "Everybody has got to get his gap and they've got to keep up on their feet (and) they can’t get cut. They do a good job of stretching in the backside and offensive linemen go down low and they cut. If one of our guys goes down. that’s what the stretch implies. They just look for a gap and then they take it north and south. If there’s no gap, there’s no play. They just keep bouncing to the sideline. But you got to have good leverage at the point of attack and you got to have people in their gaps coming down the line, and you can’t have people on the ground. It’s not that difficult."

If the Steelers can contain Foster and the Texans' run game, they should be able to control QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and the league's 28th-ranked passing game.

Offensively, the Steelers hope to take advantage of a Texans pass defense that ranks 28th in the league.

Of course, the key to gorging on that inviting secondary will be blocking the other defensive end who'll go a long way in determining the final outcome tonight: J.J. Watt.

"He is the real deal," said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "We’ve been talking all week. Everybody has to handle him. He moves all over the place. He is a unique and special player at his position, which is multiple positions. You don’t generally see 300-pound guys running down the sidelines scoring touchdowns from 60 and 80 yards. He is a freakish athlete whose motor never stops. You aren’t going to keep him off the stat sheet entirely. I think that would be a reach. But what we have to make happen is limit the game-changing plays that he has shown on tape. He has scored three touchdowns as a defensive lineman. What we can’t let happen are those game changing plays that he is very capable of making. It’s going to take everybody and everybody is going to have to handle him. But we have to get the job done."

Watt has caught a touchdown pass as a Mike Vrabel-style (and coached) tight end. He's intercepted a pass and scored, and returned a fumble for a score. He's the first to pull off such a hat trick since 1961, and the fourth since George Halas did it in 1929.

But Watt has only four sacks this season, and the Texans have only 10, or one more than the Steelers. Why isn't the great disruptor causing more disruption?

"The team doesn't speak for his play," said Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert. "This guy has great awareness and an unbelievable motor. If teams weren't game-planning around him, he would have more. He's still a big factor in all of their games."

Watt does have more sacks -- 35 -- than any other NFL player since 2012. And this year he's hit opposing quarterbacks 20 times. That's 20 more times than Tuitt has hit opposing quarterbacks in six games as a reserve.

But tonight no doubt is the start of a new era, if not for the Steelers than at least for their defensive line, because no one doubts that Tuitt is a gifted rookie.

"I'm sure my inexperience makes the coaches nervous in trying to do something, particularly since there are so many young guys out there," said Tuitt. "At the same time we all have to come together as a football team. This is the NFL. They don't care if you ever work here or not. So when you go out there, you've got to be able to do your job."

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