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Can Derrek Tuszka be the Steelers needed depth on the edge?

After catching on with the Steelers in 2021, is Tuszka a player who can be the third piece in the rotation at OLB?

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are chugging on through the 2022 offseason. Looking at a number of players and positions as the roster has fluctuated, sometimes it’s players the Steelers have on their roster taking a step that can really add to the coming season. While players who are in a starting role are important, so are those who serve in other capacities. While the Steelers are set at the starting position at outside linebacker, is Derrek Tuszka a player who can add the needed depth? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

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:

A seventh-round draft pick in 2020 by the Denver Broncos, Derrek Tuszka did not initially make their 53-man roster his rookie season. Landing on the practice squad, Tuszka was called up several weeks later and appeared in nine games for the Broncos. During that time, he only played 27 snaps on defense with 177 special team snaps.

Once again not making the 53-man roster to start the 2021 season, this time the Pittsburgh Steelers swooped in and signed Tuszka to their practice squad. After elevating Tuszka for the Week 3 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals in which he played 27 snaps on defense, the Steelers made the decision to sign Tuszka to the 53-man roster in place of Jamir Jones.

Active for each game the remainder of the season, Derrek Tuszka played 247 defensive snaps and 194 special team snaps. On the season, he had 2.0 sacks, one forced fumble, and 18 tackles. According to Pro Football Reference, Tuszka had two missed tackles on the season as well as giving up a touchdown as the primary defender against the Kansas City Chiefs. It should be noted that Pro Football Focus (PFF) did not credit Tuszka with surrendering the touchdown in their statistics.

On the season, Tuszka finished with a PFF score of 63.7 but did not qualify for an overall position ranking due to his number of snaps played. With scores ranging from a 92.7 against the Tennessee Titans to a 34.8 against the Chicago Bears, it was often a ‘feast or famine’ performance for Tuszka throughout the season according to PFF.

With the numbers telling so little of the story, it’s time to check the film.

The Film Line:

Derrek Tuszka didn’t get to start the season with the Steelers, and it showed in his play early on. Tuszka was fourth on the depth chart heading into Week 10, behind T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Taco Charlton, a player who also was not in camp, and was elevated to the active roster to replace Melvin Ingram. When T.J. Watt and later Taco Charlton left the Week 10 game against the Detroit Lions, the Steelers called on Derrek Tuszka to man T.J. Watt’s spot in the defense for the end of the 4th quarter and all of overtime.

Steelers vs. Lions, 4th quarter, 0:57.

Derrek Tuszka (#48) is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.

You can see the hesitation here. Tuszka is thinking on his feet and playing tentatively. That’s a great way to get pushed around on a football field.

Steelers vs. Lions, Overtime, 9:54.

Derrek Tuszka (#48) is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.

Tuszka is reading run to start the play, but you can see he doesn’t really have a plan. He meets the tight end and just dances with him a bit.

His play for much of the season was a bit slow and far too passive. That was fine when he was playing a few garbage-time snaps a game but when the Steelers needed him to play more, his lack of comfort in the defense was a problem. Despite that the Steelers needed him to play, and it didn’t take too long for him to catch up and play better.

Steelers vs. Titans, 1st quarter, 5:34.

Derrek Tuszka (#48) is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.

He has a plan here, he engages, wins the inside of the block, then sheds to get in on the tackle. If you look to Tuszka’s left you can see Chris Wormley getting driven backwards. Watch Wormley’s hands, he has a plan. He’s trying to slow the play, and win the outside of the block. He does get his outside hand free, but the lineman is driving him outside and downfield so it doesn’t much matter.

I pointed that out because you can contrast Wormley here to Tuszka above and see that Wormley has a plan and is just getting beat. Tuszka didn’t have a plan. His comfort level on the defense is in a much better place five weeks after the Detroit game, and he’s becoming a solid contributor.

Steelers vs. Titans, 4th quarter, 0:53.

Derrek Tuszka (#48) is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.

First let’s set the stage. There are 53 seconds left and the Steelers with a six-point lead. T.J. Watt has been playing the entire drive. After a particularly tough tackle on D’onta Foreman, Watt is taken off the field. This is the next play. What is incredible here is the design of this rush is something you see with T.J. Watt a lot. The alignment before the snap and the two players who drop create a situation where it is almost impossible to send help to the player blocking T.J. Watt. It’s a four-man rush, but it forces the offensive line to read players that aren’t rushing, and with all three players on the left coming there’s no help on the edge.

Only that’s not T.J. Watt, that’s Derrek Tuszka doing a dang good T.J. Watt impression for one snap. Watt would return the next play, but Tuszka in his one snap on a game defining drive turned a 2nd and 7 into a 3rd and 15, and they would need every inch of that, as the drive would end on 4th and 6 when Joe Haden tackled a Titans receiver close enough to the first down line that it took a replay to get the spot right and the Steelers a hard-fought win.

An impressive play, but that Titans game, while you could call it his breakout game, and that strip sack of Ryan Tannehill probably the most impactful play of his career, his best game was two weeks later against the Cleveland Browns.

Steelers vs. Browns, 2nd quarter, 10:32.

Derrek Tuszka (#48) is the edge defender to the bottom of the screen.

Here’s another play where Tuszka starts the play reading the offense. You can see his processing speed is much faster, and he knows what he needs to do. He wins the battle with the tight end and with help from Terrell Edmunds, holds Nick Chubb to a one-yard gain.

Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 9:25.

Derrek Tuszka (#48) is the edge defender to the bottom of the screen.

Derrek Tuszka doesn’t always sack quarterbacks, but when he does, it’s on key fourth quarter drives. The Browns, after witnessing first hand the power of the Tuszka, self-destructed and would punt from their own 5 yard line. That would put the Steelers in Field Goal range on the next drive, and with Boswell converting the Steelers increased their lead from 9 to 12.

It bears mentioning that the player blocking Tuszka here gave up three sacks on the game, the other two to T.J. Watt. But playing only 16 snaps against Cleveland Tuszka recorded two solo tackles and a sack. Pretty good impact in limited play.

The Point:

Derrek Tuszka also plays special teams, which is a big part of being a backup linebacker. You can see that his run defense success largely came against tight ends, and he didn’t drop into coverage much, so while he has some nice highlights it is important to keep that in context.

Tuszka took some time to gain comfort in the defense and play confidently and aggressively. But once that happened, he was a solid contributor to the Steelers. The question for 2022 is if he can grow into a player who can be the 3rd outside linebacker.