PITTSBURGH — Stephon Tuitt made his way into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ locker room late Monday afternoon, sat down in his chair and started fiddling with his laundry bag.
No sign of immediate pain from the biceps injury that threatened — but apparently did not end — the defensive lineman’s season. While Tuitt did not speak with reporters, his teammates exhaled knowing he will be back on the field at some point in 2017.
"I’m not going into detail about the specifics of it, but we’re definitely breathing a sigh of relief," defensive end Cam Heyward said.
In a way, Pittsburgh’s first "victory Monday" of the year looked an awful lot like its initial win: a brush with loss followed by a wave of relief.
The Steelers held off Cleveland 21-18 in the opener on Sunday in a performance that looked like something out of the opening days of training camp.
Penalties. Turnovers. A considerable lack of offensive rhythm outside of All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who caught 11 passes for 182 yards to bail out the rest of the "Killer Bs."
Running back Le’Veon Bell managed just 47 yards of total offense in his first game since ending his lengthy sabbatical following a contract dispute. Martavis Bryant’s return to the NFL following his drug suspension ended with two grabs for 14 yards.
Ben Roethlisberger found tight end Jesse James for a pair of scores, but threw a red zone interception in the fourth quarter that allowed the Browns to hang around until the final minutes.
"We got penalized and kicked our own butts a little bit," Roethlisberger said.
Even the most impactful player on a defense that sacked Cleveland rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer seven times was not immune.
Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt took Kizer down twice and also picked off a pass, a turnover he created one play after getting hit with a 15-yard penalty for a late hit.
"That’s the difference between college and the NFL," Watt said. "I feel like I got away with stuff like that in college and obviously it’s a stupid penalty on my part. Just something I’ll clean up with experience."
There’s plenty for Pittsburgh to work on ahead of a visit by Minnesota next Sunday. Bell brushed off the notion he was rusty more than seven months after his previous carry in a game of consequence.
"It’s game one, so obviously everything is not going to be clicking how it would be if it was in mid-season form," Bell said. "Week one is just the stepping stone."
A journey that will include Tuitt again at some point. The Steelers have been bullish on Tuitt since taking him in the second round of the 2014 draft and signed him to a six-year extension on the eve of the opener.
The ink on the paper was barely dry when Tuitt dropped Cleveland running back Isaiah Crowell for a 9-yard loss on the second play from scrimmage. Tuitt came up with his left arm aching and did not return.
Tyson Alualu, who came to Pittsburgh in a low-key free agent deal after spending the first seven seasons of his career in Jacksonville, came on to play 54 snaps. Alualu finished with five tackles, with L.T. Walton adding one in 17 snaps.
"Big shoes to fill for everybody, we’ve got to make sure there’s no drop-off," Alualu said.
There wasn’t, at least for one week as Heyward helped the line deal without perhaps its most talented player.
Heyward was repaying a debt of sorts. He missed the second half of 2016 with a torn pectoral muscle, an absence that forced Tuitt to take on more responsibility, a role he flourished in.
The Steelers believe they have the depth to keep it going until Tuitt returns. At this point, they’re simply happy that it will be sometime this fall instead of sometime in 2018.
"Everybody trusts (the reserves) when they’re in the game, but Tuitt doesn’t get paid $61 million for no reason," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "He’s one of the best in the game."
And for now — and only for now — one of the best ones just watching.