Technical difficulties prevented me from getting my article on Cam Thomas yesterday posted in the morning. Mechanical difficulties—e.g. spending seemingly half the day in a bell tower—prevented me from getting to this topic sooner.
And Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin obviously chose yesterday to give Steve McLendon a day off just to ensure that this article would no longer be as timely as it should have been, had I been able to get to it when I wanted to.
But with that out of the way, it’s time to address the backup nose tackle position, and as we saw yesterday in practice, the Steelers’ current Plan A is a tricky one, using their starting left defensive end in the middle of the defensive line, where he was a starter a year ago for the San Diego Chargers.
It’s a simple enough switch if it comes before a game. Thomas can simply start at nose tackle and remain there for the duration of the game while somebody else fills in at defensive end.
But who gives McLendon a rest when healthy? It’s a tough task asking Thomas to play two positions in the same game while getting little rest. This is especially true of the early games on the schedule, when the Steelers like to rotate their defensive line more.
Do the Steelers really plan to use Thomas as McLendon’s backup to give him a rest? That could depend on how much trust they have in Daniel McCullers or Hebron Fangupo, which, as it currently stands, probably isn’t much, at least in terms of relying on them for stretches at a time.
It’s not an impossible proposition to ask of Thomas, but it will require a healthy stable of defensive ends, and if the Steelers aren’t sure that they have that, they can always pick up the phone. I’m sure you see where I’m going here.
As we saw in practice yesterday, rookie second-rounder Stephon Tuitt got his first ‘start’ in practice in the base defense with Thomas shifting over one spot to the nose.
But while it’s still early in the process, and those within the organization are reportedly raving internally amongst themselves about his potential, it may be too much to ask of Tuitt—and of defensive line coach John Mitchell—to have the rookie ready to start come opening day.
As an interesting tidbit from a source quoted by Jim Wexell in a recent piece reveals, the Steelers are still trying to wean Tuitt out of his “sprinters’ stance”, saying that “he’s still thinking 4-3”, and that “until that gets worked out, he’ll give us something on third down”. In other words, he’s currently projected to be a sub-package, situational pass rusher for now.
Of course, once Tuitt is ready to start, Thomas can move to a Chris Hoke/Al Woods role as the first lineman off the bench at any defensive line position, and this conversation will be moot. Until then, the Steelers will need defensive ends to spell both ends while simultaneously compensating for Thomas’ extra reps at nose tackle.
Second-year Brian Arnfelt has seemingly had a steady and quiet camp, while there have been smatterings of positivity about Nick Williams, Josh Mauro, and Ethan Hemer, but they all have a long way to go not much more than a week into camp before they can be trusted in a rotation.
You won’t find a more trustworthy 3-4 end at a moment’s notice than Brett Keisel, however, and if the Steelers really intend to start Thomas at end while simultaneously rotating him with McLendon at nose tackle, then I couldn’t possibly think of a better player to call up to absorb some of those extraneous snaps that will be lying around.
At this point in his career, the Steelers wouldn’t be looking at Keisel as a starter, but he could certainly be an impactful role player in a rotation in both the base and nickel defenses.
Of course, this is an awful lot of contemplation about defensive line snap counts in the second week of training camp. By the end of the preseason, perhaps Tuitt could emerge as the starter, or somebody like Arnfelt or McCullers could earn the trust of the coaching staff enough to justify putting him on the field, thereby solving this self-made conundrum without the need to disturb The Beard.