While the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has had to make do over the course of the past two games—and will continue to do so for at least one more game—without one of its best players in Ryan Shazier, the absence of second-year nose tackle Daniel McCullers is also not without its repercussions.
Part of the issue, and the difference between the two positions, is that the defense is much more insulated at inside linebacker than it is along the defensive line, with Cam Thomas serving as the primary reserve at all three positions, and only just now rounding himself into a competent player.
Rookie sixth-round pick L.T. Walton even logged a small handful of snaps in the last game after serving on the inactive list. But with McCullers returning from his knee injury—which was evidently not nearly as bad as it looked—he figures to be going back to the bench, and Thomas should have a bit of a reduced role as well.
It seemed clear that the Steelers had McCullers as a notable part of their defensive strategy this season after he logged a combined 35 snaps during the first two games, leading up to his injury in that second game.
The former sixth-round draft pick had all of 65 snaps during his rookie year in 2014 during the regular season, so it goes without saying that he was well on pace to shatter that snap count in year two, perhaps earning somewhere around 200 to 250 defensive snaps.
It should be worth noting that the Steelers are set to head west to face a team with a franchise quarterback whose pass-to-run ratio approaches a 60 percent mark in favor of the former, which means that the nose tackle position will not be in great demand as the big man makes his return to the field.
Of course, that will not exclude him from contributing. The Steelers reaffirmed their philosophy over the course of the past week that their primary objective on defense entering every game is the stop the run and make the opposing offense one-dimensional.
But the coaching staff has also shown an affinity for using McCullers, as well as Thomas and Steve McLendon, as one of two defensive tackles serving as the down linemen when the defense plays in the nickel.
That is, of course, on the rare occasions that their prolific and productive defensive ends actually come off the field, which is not terribly often, as both consistently log around 85 percent of the Steelers’ defensive snaps.
Still, Pittsburgh will be glad to have him back, the foremost reason being that his return does much to shore up the concerning lack of depth along the defensive line. Thomas has the ability to make an occasional play, but at other times is a liability, while Walton is too raw to ask him to contribute much at the moment.