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Stephon Tuitt starts for Steelers; era ends for Pittsburgh

Stephon Tuitt gets his first start for the Steelers vs. the Bengals this week. While high hopes surround Tuitt's debut, the occasion is more than a little bittersweet, because it also signals the end to an awesome era in Steelers' defensive line history.

Stephon Tuitt's first start for Steelers ends and era in Pittsburgh.
Stephon Tuitt's first start for Steelers ends and era in Pittsburgh.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Stephon Tuitt starts this week at defensive end for the Steelers vs. the Bengals and, as he does so, an era ends in Pittsburgh on the defensive line.

Tuitt replaces Brett Keisel, who went on injured reserve after tearing a triceps in the Steelers' loss to the Saints. You've got to feel for the rookie Tuitt because of the situation he's walking into:

1. He has tremendous shoes to fill,
2. He's a rare rookie starting for Johnny Mitchell
3. He's fighting the history of Steelers draft failures with Notre Dame players and 2nd round defensive linemen

  • Not that there's any pressure on Tuitt to succeed....

Tuitt certainly deserves a chance to succeed or fail on his own merits and, while a learning curve is in order, sometimes baptism by fire serves as the best apprenticeship.

But before focusing on Tuitt's future, it's appropriate to focus on the chapter in Pittsburgh's history that Stephon Tuitt's start officially ends.

Four powerful personnel moves

5,708 days or 15 years and seven and a half months. That's a long time anywhere, but in the NFL it's an eternity.

During that time:

-  Three Rivers Stadium imploded and Heinz Field rose
- Art Rooney II has become Steelers President and Dan Rooney the Steelers Chairman
- Dan Rooney has served as ambassador to Ireland
- Three different men (Jim Hasslett, Tim Lewis, and Dick LeBeau) have worn the defensive coordinator's headset for the Steelers
- Two men (Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert) have held the title "Director of Football Operations" and the name even got upgraded to "General Manager"
- Two men (Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin) have held the title of "head coach" for the Steelers
- The Steelers have won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and lost Super Bowl XLV
and, perhaps not coincidentally,
- One man (Johnny Mitchell) has held the title "Defensive Line Coach"

For the record, the era that Stephon Tuitt's start now caps began on April 18th, 1999, and the event in question was the Steelers' pick of Aaron Smith in the fourth round of the draft.

For those inclined to analyze the quality of April's drafts during the following December or January, consider that Aaron Smith only appeared in six games as a rookie and had one assist on a tackle (and a pass defensed.) The following summer in Latrobe, Smith grabbed hold of the starting job and didn't relinquish it until injuries ended his career 12 seasons, 44 sacks and 326 tackles later.

  • Score that as one personnel decision that paid decade-long dividends.

If fourth-round picks are normally ‘ho hum' affairs, then this next personnel move seemed like a bit of a head scratcher. One of Kevin Colbert's first moves when he arrived in Pittsburgh was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen who'd played six largely undistinguished years for the Bengals.

The Steelers made it known that Dermontti Dawson, who had played extensively against von Oelhoffen, endorsed the move, but a year earlier they justified signing Bengals tackle Anthony Brown with a similar endorsement from Joel Steed. Put eloquently, Brown "sucked" for the Steelers in 1999, so skepticism was understandable.

Von Oelhoffen began at nose tackle and then switched to defensive end and, between both positions, started 85 games for the Steelers and registered 20.5 sacks. As for the reason why Von Oelhoffen changed positions? That's clear with the next personnel move.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has written that the nose tackle is the fulcrum on which the success of the 3-4 zone blitz rises and falls. Site editor Neal Coolong takes exception to Bouchette on this and Neal's arguments are sound. But Bouchette's pronouncement has a poetic ring to it and it also fits this story, so we'll side with the dean of the Steelers' Press Corps.

A year into Kevin Colbert's tenure, the Steelers were in a bit of a bind. Since Joel Steed's retirement in 1999, the Steelers had lacked a true nose tackle. Colbert has only traded down in the first-round once, but he made it count.

In 2001 he swapped picks with the Dallas Cowboys and took the University of Texas' Casey Hampton.

Now nose tackles in the 3-4 don't pile up gaudy statistics. Casey Hampton only had 9 sacks in 12 seasons with the Steelers - or six and a half less than Ray Seals had in two years with the ‘Burgh. But even attempting to quantify Hampton's contribution makes a mockery of his accomplishments.

For 12 years, Big Snack took the middle of the field away from opposing offenses, drew double teams, and acted as the immovable object that made the Steelers the stingiest run defense in the NFL.

  • Score that as two personnel decisions that paid decade-long dividends.

Guys who get picked 242nd in the draft are "supposed" to be footnotes, training camp bodies, perennial practice-squad players, special teams contributors, or guys who, with a little luck, grow into roles as backups.

And then there's Brett Keisel, Kevin Colbert's seventh-round pick in 2002, and arguably the best player in what was almost certainly his best draft in terms of pick-for-pick value.

Keisel didn't play much in his first two seasons, but by 2005 he had worked his way into the defensive line rotation. In 2006, he assumed the starting role. Keisel was like a fine wine - he got better with age.

Whether it was his 79-yard, pick-six vs. Tampa Bay in 2010, forcing a Tom Brady fumble to seal victory vs. New England in 2011, or the deflected pass turned interception vs. Houston, Keisel kept finding ways to make big plays when the Steelers needed him to.

  • Score that as three personnel decisions that paid decade-long dividends.

Yes Colbert, Cowher and Donahoe were Good, But Steelers Nation is lucky

From 2001 to 2011 the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive line was essentially manned by five men, the four above plus Chris Hoke (with valued contributions from the likes of Rodney Bailey, Nick Eason and Travis Kirschke).

That's an exceptional streak, especially when you consider Smith and von Oelhoffen made contributions before the entire unit came together, and Hampton and Keisel continued contributing on the back end.

The streak speaks well of the talent-evaluation skills of Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher and, in the case of Aaron Smith, Tom Donahoe. Johnny Mitchell's role in molding these men once they got to Latrobe cannot be underestimated.

  • But personnel success in the NFL isn't just about evaluation and coaching, fortune also plays a very real role.

Other than Casey Hampton, none of these players suffered a major injury during the prime of their careers (contrast that with say, Greg Lloyd or Rod Woodson). Nor did roster needs force the Steelers to gamble with say, exposing Keisel or Smith to the waiver wire during their rookie campaigns when they were essentially sideline ornaments.

So here's to hoping that, in 2024 here on BTSC, someone will be writing an article about the Heyward-McLendon-McCullers-Tuitt era of the Steelers' defensive line.

But if it doesn't work out that way, just remember how lucky you were to have enjoyed the reign of Smith, von Oelhoffen, Big Snack and Da Beard.