After breaking down various players from the Steelers 2020 roster who the team needed to make a decision about their future with the franchise, this week we are going to cover the “return” of Tyson Alualu who was believed to be headed back to Jacksonville only to come back to Pittsburgh after all. After thinking the Steelers would need to replace Alualu for 2021, let’s look at what the Steelers are now getting back in the middle of their defense.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
As many Steelers fans know, nose tackle can sometimes be a position for the unsung hero. The stats don’t always jump off the page when a nose tackle is taking care of business and getting the job done. So looking at Tyson Alualu’s 2020 stats for the Steelers, a few things jump out but not everything with the numbers show the great season he had. With 2.0 sacks and 38 tackles, Alualu had four tackles for loss and five quarterback hits along with a forced fumble. One of the biggest numbers that stand out was Alualu had five passes defensed from knocking the ball down on a pass play in 2020. This number was more than double than any other season in his 11-year career.
What might be the more interesting stats are how the Steelers defended the run with Alualu in the lineup. Through the Steelers first six games, their opponents were held under 100 yard rushing on all but one game which was 104 yards by the Denver Broncos in Week 2. In Week 6 the Steelers held the Cleveland Browns to 75 yards rushing followed by the Tennessee Titans to 82 yards rushing. These games stand out as the Browns finished third in the NFL in rushing in 2020 while the Titans finished second.
When Tyson Alualu was injured on his sixth snap of the game in the first matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers struggled to stop the run and surrendered 265 rushing yards on the day. The following week against the Dallas Cowboys, who finished in the middle of the league in rushing, the Steelers gave up 144 rushing yards. Alualu returned in Week 10 against the Cincinnati Bengals but only played 19 defensive snaps as the Steelers gave up 139 rushing yards, even though 39 yards were on a fake punt and another 22 yards was on the final drive of the game when the Bengals were just trying to run out the clock since they were trailing by 26 points.
The big question with Alualu comes with how much his injury was affecting his play in the second half of 2020. While he continued to put up similar stats, the Steelers did give up more rushing yards at times. For a better explanation of this, we’re going to have to look at the film.
The Film Line:
Tyson Alualu is considered the Steelers nose tackle, and he fills that spot on the field in the Steelers 3-4 sets. But while he fills that spot on the field, he is not what most people think of as a nose tackle. Let’s go to the film and look at what Tyson Alualu brings, what makes him valuable, and how the team plays to his strengths and weaknesses.
Week 1, 2nd quarter, 14:39. Tyson Alualu is the nose tackle, in the middle of the defensive line.
Tyson Alualu dominates the Giants center, easily discarding him and tackling Saquon Barkley for a loss. Moving from a defensive tackle lined up over a guard to lining up over the center as a nose tackle gave Alualu a lot of matchups he could physically win, and he shows he still has the quickness to make plays when he breaks into the backfield.
Week 2, 2nd quarter, 5:39, Tyson Alualu (#94) is the nose tackle.
Again one-on-one on a center, and another win and play made in the backfield. Alualu has the strength, quickness and skill to dominate any but the best centers in the NFL, and teams learned quickly they couldn’t just one-on-one Tyson Alualu with their center and get away with it.
Week 7, 2nd quarter, 12:13, Tyson Alualu is the nose tackle.
Alualu isn’t the Joel Steed/Casey Hampton type of nose tackle who can anchor against a good double team and clog the middle. Alualu isn’t going to win this combo block, and you can see the big hole it opens for Derrick Henry. Alualu isn’t the traditional nose tackle people think of, he isn’t a giant anchor in the middle of the line, that isn’t the NFL anymore.
Week 7, 3rd quarter, 8:02. Tyson Alualu is the nose tackle.
This play goes a lot better, Alualu doubled again, but you can see him turn his back and keep Vince Williams clean until he is in the run lane, forcing a cutback. You can also see that doubling Alualu leaves Stephon Tuitt one-on-one with a guard. Alualu doesn’t reliably beat guards like he does centers, but Stephon Tuitt beat guards more reliably, and after the Steelers adjusted to the Titans’ strategy of doubling Alualu, the Titans struggled to run when Alualu was in.
That covers the main value of Alualu playing the nose
He can beat centers and make plays in the backfield. That forces teams to either double team him or put a guard on him. If you consider that in 3-4 Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are also on the field, and there are only two guards, that means a tackle needed to get involved to stop the front 3, and that left either T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree on a tight end or running back.
The Steelers use green dog blitzes, so in man coverage that tight end or running back’s defender will turn into a blitzer and keep the pressure on.
Alualu isn’t Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, and he shows that when he lines up as a defensive tackle in a 4-man front. But lined up over a center, he becomes a mismatch for most teams, and with the rest of the front 7 being as good as they are, there’s no one the offense can exploit to cover that mismatch.
One of the big weaknesses of most nose tackles is lateral movement, and that has made outside zone runs a great counter to big nose tackles.
Week 12, 2nd quarter, 1:53. Tyson Alualu is the nose tackle.
Tyson Alualu was a first round pick, in part because he is a pretty good athlete for a defensive lineman. He still can move well in his thirties, and he shuts down the inside cut on this outside zone run, forcing the runner to cutback, and makes the tackle. Alualu gives more than most nose tackles can give on this play.
Week 16, 1st quarter, 10:35. Tyson Alualu is the nose tackle.
This one is even better. Alualu controls center Ryan Kelly, trapping Quentin Nelson behind the play, then passes off Kelly and makes the tackle in the backfield. Alualu and Stephon Tuitt (slows the other guard getting free, leaving a hole for Vince Williams to shoot into the backfield) destroy this outside zone play.
Tyson Alualu is a great outside zone run defender, and his ability to dominate almost any center in the NFL, and more importantly, make plays when he does, creates a mismatch advantage when he plays nose tackle. When he forces teams to adapt to his presence with a guard or a double team, that creates opportunities for the players around him.
So while Alualu has a lot of value when the Steelers are healthy, when he returned the results weren’t as good, because a banged up Steelers front 7 couldn’t exploit the mismatch Alualu created as much. Teams could focus more on Alualu and get away with it.