Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Daniel McCullers logged 43 snaps in the team’s last preseason game against the Bills on Saturday, which was certainly a significant test for the second-year player, considering the circumstances.
The game against the Bills was only McCullers’ second of the preseason. He logged 12 snaps in that one. During his rookie preseason, he logged 101 snaps total, with a high of 32 in the fourth of four games.
During the regular season and postseason combined, the second-year nose tackle accumulated just 82 snaps, with 17 of those coming in the Wildcard game, which was his season-high and just the fourth game in which he logged double digit snaps. And this was just a game after returning from a hamstring injury.
Why so much work? Steve McLendon logged just 12 snaps, and Mike Thornton only 11. Out of everybody on either side of the ball, only the Bills’ starting offensive line and a wide receiver logged more snaps than McCullers. The only logical explanation is that they specifically wanted to give him a long blow in this game, perhaps to test his endurance and conditioning some.
While I initially reached the conclusion, however, that this endurance test hardly received a passing grade, after further review, I have to conclude that the big man fared well, in sum, over the course of the game.
It should be little surprise, though, that his best work came against the run, where he was often pitted against starting center Eric Wood, along with the rest of the Bills’ starting offensive line.
On the first play of the second quarter, however, the Bills line virtually gave him a free release, with Wood just barely chipping as he worked to the second level. McCullers used his massive frame to absorb an attempted block from Charles Clay, but he was unable to get to the running back in time.
Later on the same drive, however, the big nose tackle showed exactly what you want to see from him. He was able to stack and shed against Wood, even as the veteran center tried to turn him. McCullers was able to rip past him and work down the line to get in on the tackle for a short gain.
The initial impression that I had of the play below was one of fatigue setting in, with McCullers content to rest against the left guard rather than to give full effort in pass pursuit. As the Steelers have done on multiple occasions, however, it was actually a case of dropping the nose tackle into a short zone in order to compensate for a blitzing defensive back.
Normally when this is done, the dropping lineman would try to disengage from his blocker in order to maintain his lateral mobility, but McCullers was able to accomplish this simply with his long reach, as can be seen as he works to his left to cover the running back out of the backfield, forcing the quarterback to hit his second check down.
While he often did not get the push that you would like to see from a man of his size, to his credit, the Bills did double team him for most of the rest of that drive, and frequently on subsequent drives. He also displayed the awareness to get his hand up in the passing lanes when he could not get home.
As we advance to midway in the third quarter, however, Wood gave way to former Steelers third-round pick Kraig Urbik, who was able to set and control McCullers on occasion one-on-one in a passing situation.
The big nose tackle did look better on the next rep, which ended up being a 37-yard touchdown pass, but he ultimately ended up on the ground after driving Urbik back five yards and stalling as the center reestablished his base.
But Urbik certainly did not get the better of him in the ground game. On one instance from the fourth quarter, the center and right guard attempted to double team him, but McCullers anchored, ultimately shedding and working over Urbik’s left side to record the run stop after a gain of a yard.
Initial impressions can be a strong bias that one has to work against, which was the case for me in watching McCullers against the pass in this last game. The shortcomings seemed to stick out to a greater degree based on the knowledge of his workload and his recent hamstring injury, which could have had an effect on his endurance.
But the truth is that he held up well under the workload, which is certainly substantially less than he will see in the regular season. His work against the run was strong, and he can at least regularly command multiple defenders in the passing game to encourage isolation opportunities for his teammates. He has also in the past done better work in this area of the game than he showed against the Bills, who have a strong offensive line.