By Michael K. Reynolds
Who would have thought one of the most anticipated rookie debuts for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season would be a sixth round draft choice?
That’s precisely the buzz and surprising controversy surrounding nose tackle Daniel McCullers’ opportunity to be active for a game for the first time in his young career. In fact, he might even get significant playing time Monday night against the Houston Texans.
Had it not been for the injury suffered last week by starting nose Steve McLendon, McCullers might never have strapped on a chin strap this season for the Steelers and this has many fans piping mad.
With the Steelers suffering from a case of wimpiness on the defensive line not only for this year, but for the past couple of seasons, why not give the mammoth tackle a try? If you’re getting bullied on the way to school, why not bring your big brother with you? At least that’s the general line of thinking for McCullers proponents.
Yet for others, and many of them respected experts, the McCullers phenomenon is just a big hoax. The Sasquatch watch of 2014.
Several of them are part of “the Steve McLendon is much better than you think” camp that believes all of the attention McCullers is getting is detrimental to the development, confidence and fair credit of the team’s anointed starting nose tackle. They scoff at even the possibility of McLendon being used at both nose and defensive end.
Could it be several of the coaches are in that corner and that they are anxious to avoid a “nose tackle controversy” at any cost?
And there is defensive line coach John Mitchell’s age old tradition that “he will serve no defensive lineman before his time”. Apparently it takes years to develop 3-4 linemen to the point of trusting them to fill gaps. If not, who needs coaching, right?
Much of the McCullers pushback may very well be coming from the front office, where one of their bigger free agent signings was Cam Thomas. The former San Diego Charger may already be general manager Kevin Colbert’s biggest ever acquisition flop. If McCullers proves even a slight improvement on Thomas, it will seal the deal and force the team to either release “Camzilla” or make him inactive as soon as McLendon returns.
Then again, it may not be about pushback or grassy knoll conspiracies at all. Perhaps McCullers just isn’t ready and the coaches and top brass know best.
And for all of those crazy, clamoring fans who have been chanting Big Dan’s name since he was drafted? Why all of their fuss?
Perhaps it’s as simple as he’s already proven to be better than advertised. Comparing some of his University of Tennessee film with his preseason play, McCullers looks much faster and…dare we say it…more nimble of foot. Contrary to the predictions about the NFL being above his talent level, he didn’t look lost when he got on the field and he was able to do something the team hasn’t been able to do consistently for years:
Push the pile forward.
The claim is that the zone blocking scheme of the Texans will quickly prove Mount McCullers’ undoing and that his debut performance will be a box office failure.
Most likely, he will look a little a disoriented at times. He may struggle against a starting offensive line having only played backups to date. He may actually get in the way of his teammates. He probably will be a liability at times if the Texans go hurry-up offense.
But then again, maybe he’ll surprise. Perhaps he’ll force the Texans to double-team him, freeing up his teammates to look better than they have this season. Is there a chance they’ll discover that our rushing linebackers can get sacks if we have someone who can collapse the pocket?
After all you don’t need to worry about being gap sound, squaring shoulders and moving along the line in synch with your teammates if you are shoving the opposing center into the quarterback at every snap of the ball. That’s the simple, non-exotic way to stop the run and to create passing pressure.
Yet, regardless of the outcome of Big Dan’s big day, you’ve got to give him credit. When’s the last time a nose tackle has added so much intrigue to watching a Steelers game?