NASHVILLE, Tenn. —
The Titans defensive lineman, who is listed at 6-foot-8 and 298 pounds, was about 6-foot and 180 pounds in middle school and grew to about 6-4 and nearly 200 pounds in high school.
“I was never that into it, but when he came in, he kept asking me. I figured I’d just give it a shot,” Pitoitua said. “When I got my first sack, I fell in love with the sport and it just took over from there.”
Pitoitua stuck with it, received a scholarship and played 36 games for the Washington State Cougars. It was a great opportunity for the big man who was born in the small village of Aua, American Samoa. Pitoitua is proud of his heritage and fondly remembers going to the beach and swimming with childhood friends in Pago Pago Harbor. He encountered “culture shock” at age 10 when his family moved from the island in the South Pacific to the Pacific Northwest because of the difference in climate and the more rapid pace of things.
Pitoitua made it to the NFL as an undrafted free agent and spent all of 2008 on the New York Jets’ practice squad, then played eight games in 2009. An Achilles injury in the preseason cost him the entire 2010 season, but Pitoitua played 14 games for the Jets in 2011 before joining Kansas City, for whom he started 10 games last season. The Chiefs struggled to a 2-14 record last year, but Pitoitua said it illustrated the importance of determination.
“When times are hard, you’ve got to learn how to pick yourself up,” Pitoitua said. “I feel like that’s what we had out there. Everybody picked themselves up and tried to stay positive.”
Tennessee is less concerned about direct statistics from those players and places more emphasis on how they improve the totality of the defense.
|Ropati Pitoitua records his second sack of Jets QB Geno Smith in the Titans' 38-13 win on Sept. 29.|
Pitoitua has been consistent, recording at least four tackles in each game with the Titans, and he has already set a new career high with three sacks on the season. Pitoitua dropped Jets QB Geno Smith twice on Sept. 29 and set his new career mark with a sack of Alex Smith last week. Pitoitua said the sacks were tallied because he had help from teammates.
“For my first sack, Jurrell (Casey) made a great pass-rush move. He beat his guy clearly and flushed Geno out, and I just had (D’Brickashaw Ferguson) and he flushed him right to me, so give credit to Jurrell on that one,” Pitoitua said. “Then, on the second one, it was a screen play. (Bilal) Powell was trying to chip me. I got a little bit of him and then I guess Zach (Brown) picked him up and had great coverage on him so that gave me more time to get to Geno, so Geno had nowhere to go.”
Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said he watched game film to assess Pitoitua’s strengths and weaknesses and told Pitoitua, “I don’t have all the answers but that’s what I see. I feel if we can clean up some of your weaknesses, we can grow and have success.”
Most players as tall as Pitoitua struggle with establishing leverage against shorter players, but he’s “naturally strong and has a knack for the game,” Rocker said, adding Pitoitua is also unique because his dominant hand is his left and his dominant foot is his right (most players are right-right or left-left).
“He’s got a lot of movements going, so we spend a lot of time just trying to keep body coordination,” Rocker said. “I think he got a sense of confidence when he got here that this is what we want you to do on defense: we want you to knock people back, stop the run, come over here, sit down and go back out there and do it again.”
Pitoitua said the role was “definitely clear” and he liked the opportunity and the focus he’s seen from teammates.
“I felt like it was something I couldn’t turn down,” Pitoitua said. “When I came, I really clicked with Tracy, and we’re ready to get it going for the rest of the season, especially with the guys they brought in.”
Tennessee (3-2) visits Seattle (4-1) at 3:05 p.m. CT Sunday, and Pitoitua has had about 50 requests for tickets from family and friends.“We’ve got to go out there and try to get a win. It’s going to be a hostile environment,” Pitoitua said. “We all know the 12th Man, but we’re looking forward to it.”