By Will Graves
June 3, 2015
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- It's a business decision that doubles as a reminder for Stephon Tuitt.
The second-year Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman decided against buying a home during the offseason, preferring to lease a small apartment instead not far from the team facility. Nothing against where he works or anything. But Tuitt figures writing that monthly rent check is a way to keep him rooted in the reality that nothing in the NFL is guaranteed.
''I'm going to consider all my days in the league as if I just started,'' Tuitt said.
Even if Tuitt understands it's time for the training wheels to come off. With mentor Brett Keisel effectively retired, Tuitt is in line for a starting spot when the Steelers begin the 2015 season in New England on the second Thursday in September. No pressure or anything, right?
''I don't see it as that,'' Tuitt said with a laugh. ''I see it as they gave me an opportunity and I'm going to be like I was last year, practice hard and do what I do.
''Work hard on the football field. Keep my mouth closed off the football field,'' he said.
Taken with the 46th overall pick in the 2014 Draft, the Steelers viewed Tuitt as a bit of a project, bringing him along slowly last fall as a still maturing 21-year-old. The results were promising. By the middle of the season Tuitt was seeing regular playing time in certain packages, his 6-foot-6, 304-pound frame occasionally flashing the combination of speed and instincts that made him one of the best defensive linemen in the country during his collegiate career at Notre Dame.
Playing for the Irish gave Tuitt the confidence he could compete in the NFL. Translating that confidence into results, however, proved another matter entirely. While Tuitt stresses he wasn't overwhelmed during his first go-round offseason practices and training camp, he went through a bit of culture shock.
''We practiced every day at Notre Dame full speed, but you knew sometimes you could take a break. You can't do that here,'' Tuitt said. ''The job is not just on Sunday.''
That part took some getting used to.
Tuitt admits there were far too many dinners out after getting drafted. Not the most advisable way to shed whatever baby fat remained. He's since started working with a nutritionist to learn what he should and shouldn't put in his body. While his smile is still boyish, Tuitt's upper body is far more chiseled than it was a year ago, the better to get off blocks and get after the ball.
It's something the Steelers need from Tuitt to take some pressure off Cam Heyward, now firmly entrenched as the defensive line's emotional leader. Heyward understands the growing pains that come while making the adjustment to Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme. Heyward didn't become a starter until his third season. Tuitt is well ahead of that pace, and it shows.
''I think you can see from last year that he definitely has a (higher comfort) level with this defense,'' Heyward said. ''He's able to run faster and play hard and light his hair on fire, because he's not thinking as much.''
Tuitt finished with one sack and 17 tackles in 2014, his presence providing a regular jolt down the stretch as the Steelers emerged from the crowded AFC North with the division title. He'd prefer not to specify how far he'd like his numbers to climb in 2015 but knows his job is to help restore some of the luster to a pass rush that has weakened considerably over the last five years.
''I'm confident our sack game is going to be a lot stronger,'' Tuitt said. ''We've got the players to do it. It's just a matter of getting all the parts working together.''
And if the parts that include Tuitt and Heyward start clicking, all the better. They are in some ways mirror images of each other. Both came to Pittsburgh with a lofty draft status and the expectation they would one day take over for Keisel and Aaron Smith, cornerstones of a defense that helped the Steelers to three Super Bowl appearances in six seasons.
Heyward graduated from his apprenticeship in 2013. After a year learning under Keisel, Tuitt is ready to do the same.
''I got a chance to come out here with All Pro players, getting a chance to go against All-Pro players,'' Tuitt said. ''Everything in this game is a matter of snaps to be prepared mentally and physically and ... I'm just going to handle it the best way I can.''
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