Tim Benz: Steelers desperately need healthy seasons from Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden

September 23, 2018

Steelers corner back Joe Haden covers receiver Antonio Brown during practice Thursday, July 26, 2018 at Saint Vincent College.

In the middle of his answer, Joe Haden turned away to touch the trimming around his locker, making sure it was real wood.

“The main thing is being available. Hopefully, I don’t break my leg. Knock on wood,” Haden said, giving a solid double tap to the frame around his stall.

While he’s at it, Haden may want to avoid any ladders downtown with all the construction going on in the Cultural District. Don’t walk under those. Maybe give Animal Friends a call to scoop up any stray black cats in his neighborhood. And for God’s sake, be careful around mirrors.

Because last year, Haden broke his leg against the Colts. He missed five games after that. He has missed 19 games the previous three years.

While Haden was injured, opposing quarterbacks Brett Hundley, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton combined for eight touchdowns and two interceptions against the Steelers. They averaged a quarterback rating of 100.

“When I’m out there, I feel like I can do a lot to help the defense,” Haden said. “That’s my main goal. Play all 16 games in the regular season this year.”

That’s an excellent goal to have. Stephon Tuitt should have it, too. Because if those two players are dressed and healthy, by their presence alone the Steelers defense will be noticeably improved. Even if Tuitt and Haden don’t make a ton of plays, those two are good enough that a quarterback is going to think twice about throwing in Haden’s direction even if a receiver is momentarily open. Also, offensive lines are going to have to account for Tuitt’s potential.

Tuitt falls into the same category as Haden because injuries have slowed what was perceived to be a rocketing progression from “developing young starter” to “frequent All-Pro.”

That’s why the Steelers gave him a $60 million contract last September.

However, the defensive end suffered a torn bicep on the second play of the opener against Cleveland. That cost him two full games and most of Week 1. The injury made him play with -- as he describes it -- an “arm and a quarter all season.” Then a back injury sidelined him for Weeks 7 and 8. Those were the two weeks before Haden got hurt. So when Tuitt came back at less than 100-percent, that was at the same point as when Haden went down. And the defense suffered. Tremendously. For those who point out the defense in Pittsburgh was showing cracks before Ryan Shazier’s spine injury, that’s why. Look no further than not having Tuitt and Haden at top capacity.

“To get the quarterback spooked to throw it his (Haden’s) way, that would help us a lot,” Tuitt said.

With Shazier on injured reserve, Haden out and Tuitt playing hurt, the Steeler defense allowed on average 28.25 points in a four-game stretch against Green Bay, Cincinnati, Baltimore and New England. The league’s worst scoring defense, Houston, allowed an average of 27.3 for the season.

The Steelers won’t be getting Shazier back this year. And signs are they are struggling to figure out the best way to replace him. They’ll have similar issues attempting to replace Haden and Tuitt if they were to get injured again. I have no doubt those two will be productive if they are physically capable. History shows us we should have doubts about them remaining healthy though. It might be in defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s best interest to find some wood to knock on as well.

Too bad Le’Veon Bell hasn’t reported yet. Butler could use his head.

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