For as long as the Pittsburgh Steelers have been, and will be, without Ryan Shazier, they have also been without backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. Both second-year defensive players were injured during the second game of the season and have proceeded to miss the past three weeks.
But Shazier is ruled out for this afternoon’s game, while McCullers is expected to be active. The nose tackle was listed as probable last week and still did not dress, that much is true, but the fact that he is listed as probable again only makes it all the more likely, given that he was so close a week ago to returning.
By the same token, it is equally probable that McCullers would have seen little playing time last week, as the Steelers spent most of the game in their nickel defense, with Steve McLendon, the starting nose tackle, only logging 14 snaps, most of which came as a sub-package defensive tackle.
It’s true that the Cardinals boast a strong rushing attack this season, but theirs is an offense still largely driven by playing the vertical ball, with the third wide receiver, for example, logging more snaps than the second tight end, and they also get their running backs involved in the passing game.
In other words, they still throw the ball, under normal, close-game circumstances, around 60 percent of the time, but given that they have had commanding leads in most of their games en route to a comfortable 4-1 record, their total pass-to-run ratio is at about 55 percent.
The Steelers would like to take the over on that number, which would mean that they have kept the Cardinals out of clock-killing mode by turning to the ground game. And that would mean less snaps for the nose tackles, and thus less need for McCullers to contribute.
Pittsburgh has relied heavily on its two starting defensive end thus far through the first five games of the season, and part of the reason for that is that they lack really any trusted depth behind them.
Not that the return of a nose tackle would do much to influence the snap counts of defensive ends, but if McCullers returns, that could help some. The second-year player is sub-package-capable, as he did during the first two weeks.
Additionally, if he logs snaps at nose tackle, that could give the Steelers the opportunity to play McLendon at defensive end, which is something that they experimented with during the first two games of the season.
With McCullers out since then, however, they have been forced largely to abandon that idea, as it would mean playing Cam Thomas at nose tackle, and if both were simultaneously on the field, they would rather just play McLendon inside.
Under normal circumstances, perhaps it would be more difficult for a young player without having clearly established himself to find his way back into playing time, but the fact is that the Steelers don’t have a lot of options. So if they play much in their base today, you can figure to see McCullers out there.