As Isaiah Buggs stood at his locker on Tuesday following practice, he did what he normally does when he sees the media heading his way. He slid out of the way to make room for them as he is so accustomed to everyone heading to the locker next to his, which belongs to Cam Heyward.
This time, though, everyone was surrounding Buggs.
“They are coming for you man,” Heyward bellowed.
Just a few hours earlier the team placed defensive end Stephon Tuitt on the reserve/injured list with a pectoral injury and Buggs, one of the team’s sixth round picks this year, will be among those counted on to pick up the slack, going from being inactive on a regular basis to working into the rotation at defensive end to give others a breather.
And he is going to use everything Tuitt taught him as he takes on whatever is asked of him.
“He taught me all the aspects of the game, how to transition from college to the NFL and being a great pro,” said Buggs. “Tuitt taught me a lot when I first came here. In the summer he taught me a lot. He helped me with a lot of things in the preseason. He is like a big brother to me. Every time I step on the field it’s going to be for him.
“Watching these veterans, practicing with them every day and they guide me, I am ready.”
While he is ready to step up, Buggs feels the same way as everyone else in the locker room. They are hurting for Tuitt, who was having a strong season.
“Just to see him go down is not good,” said Buggs. ‘It’s kind of hurting. He always told me to keep my head up on days when I felt down, when I wasn’t playing. Now the opportunity is here, presented to me, I have to stand up and do it right for him. Everything that is being presented to me is for him.
“I know how he is feeling right now. He was having a marvelous year. He was being dominant. He is going to tell me it’s time to step up and be the bigger person and take over. I am going to follow behind Cam and all the veteran guys, and they are going to lead me in the right direction.”
Tuitt was tied for the team lead with 3 ½ sacks and six tackles for a loss. He also had six quarterback hits before suffering the injury.
“We have to hold down the fort,” said Heyward, who tore his pectoral muscle in 2016 and said one of the toughest things early on is adjusting to having to sleep sitting up. “Tuitt is a heck of a player. We aren’t asking anybody to emulate him, just to get the job done. I thought Tuitt was having a heck of a year. You never want to see a guy go down. He has made a lot of progress. I was proud of him. I would like to think he was having a Pro Bowl, All-Pro year. Now he has a setback. He is going to bounce back in a big way.”
He isn’t going to be an easy player to replace, but the good news is the Steelers have depth at the position that is ready to step up. Tyson Alualu took over against the Chargers and the former No. 1 pick is ready to take on the starting role in Tuitt’s absence.
“When you come in as a backup, when you spell those guys, you don’t want to have a drop off,” said Alualu. “You don’t want to be the reason why they can’t come out of the game or don’t want to have breaks. I just try to make the most of the opportunity, play well, help our group and help this team win games.
“Injuries are part of the game. It’s always about the next man up. It’s not all on me. It’s the group. We have to come together and pick up the slack because we are losing a great player. We have to play better as a unit. When you lose a great player like Tuitt for a year it’s tough. Everybody has to play their best game. I know for me I have to be my best day in and day out. It’s not all on me. We have a great group, great depth with Buggs and bringing L.T. (Walton) back. That is huge. We have to play well together to help this team win.”
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Alualu was referring to L.T. Walton, who the Steelers signed when they placed Tuitt on the reserve/injured list. Walton was selected by the Steelers in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He played in four games in 2018, against Kansas City, Carolina, Jacksonville and Denver, recording a tackle and a pass defense.
Walton has been used throughout his career mainly in a reserve role, playing in 36 games with four starts, all in the 2016 season. He has recorded 19 tackles, including 14 solo stops, three passes defensed, and two sacks during the 2017 season.
“It feels good to be back,” said Walton, who was at home in Houston when he got the call to come back. “I had a feeling it was a possibility, especially with me being here in the past and understanding how things work here. I was trying to put my hand in the pile and do the right thing. Whatever is necessary, I’m going to put my hand in the pile and let’s go.
“I have been here for a while. I understand what it takes to be a Steeler.”