According to David Todd, the Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to start rookie sixth-round draft pick Daniel McCullers at nose tackle on Monday night against the Tennessee Titans, as previously reported.
As I wrote about earlier this week, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean a mountain of playing time for the mountain of a man. Whether or not he starts also rests on the assumption that nose tackle Steve McLendon does not dress, though that seems unlikely.
Although McLendon did play throughout the game on Sunday, this move was foreshadowed in that game when it was McCullers, and not Cam Thomas, serving as the change of pace nose tackle in the base package. Thomas did not play at nose tackle at all for the first time this season.
Thomas will, of course, still start at the left defensive end position, which is likely where he would have started when McLendon missed two games earlier this year if the coaching staff was comfortable enough with McCullers at that point.
Instead, they were forced to start Brett Keisel, which is something that they were hoping to avoid, not because of concerns about ability, but rather durability, as they try to preserve the 36-year-old’s body for the long haul. Of course, Keisel has already been logging more time than Thomas anyway.
In the previous games in which McLendon failed to play, the Steelers responded by reducing the frequency with which they played in their base defense in order to minimize their reliance on Thomas and McCullers.
When that proved to be a hindrance to the running game—which is something that we already knew would be the case, based on prior evidence—they responded by beefing up their nickel defense with linebacker Vince Williams. That would allow the defense greater flexibility in playing with two linemen on the field.
McCullers played a career-high 11 snaps on Sunday, including penalties. He’ll almost surely exceed that, given that the Titans still run the ball despite frequently playing from behind, which is in part to compensate for playing with a rookie quarterback.
What happens after that is yet to be determined, though it’s more likely that he goes back to the inactive list than remains in the starting lineup.
McCullers will be active for his fourth of 11 games, and his previous three games saw him active purely due to injury. The Steelers should be getting healthy after the upcoming bye week, and the rookie will be the least versatile lineman of the group.
Pittsburgh is reluctant to put Keisel in the starting lineup, and the team is obviously not ready for Stephon Tuitt to start, so they need Thomas to continue eating up some snaps at defensive end. In other words, it’s highly unlikely that McCullers plays so well that he forces Thomas to the inactive list, even if that’s exactly what many want.