The Optimist’s Take: McCullers In The Middle

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Is third-year player Daniel McCullers sufficient for the Steelers’ defensive needs at the nose tackle position?

The only reason that this question is being asked is, of course, because of the fact that the Steelers failed to re-sign veteran nose tackle and three-year starter Steve McLendon, who signed a three-year contract with the Jets worth roughly up to $4 million per season.

While the Steelers were said to be interest in retaining the veteran 30-year-old, the fact that the team only uses its 3-4 defensive package under 30 percent of the time these days, and his limited productivity as a pass rusher that would enable him to play in the nickel, limited what they were willing to allocate to re-signing him.

With McLendon—and Cam Thomas—out of the picture, however, that puts a huge spotlight on McCullers now, at least for the time being as we sit here close to April. Much will still happen between now and September when meaningful snaps will be taken, but for now, we must work under the assumption that the third-year nose tackle is their ‘starter’ at the position, even if it is no longer exactly part of their ‘starting’ lineup.

It is worth keeping in mind that the Steelers’ primary motivation in drafting him seemed to be simply his sheer size, coming out of college as a 6’7”, 350-plus pounder whom they expected would at least be able to occupy people, or move them if necessary, as they mold him into what they hope he can become.

He saw limited snaps as a rookie, and that was expected to increase at least some in his second season, but that did not fully come to fruition in part because he missed a full quarter of the season—four games—because of an ankle injury that he suffered in the second game of the year.

During his actual playing time, the Steelers received some mixed results, and before long they realized rather quickly that he was not overly effective playing in the nickel. But part of his difficulties likely stem from the injury.

More importantly, however, they will likely not ask him to play in that role. Unless addressed otherwise, the role of the nose tackle this year will probably be pretty narrowly defined to be limited, primarily on obvious running downs.

A properly motivated McCullers can at bare minimum take up space and some blockers, perhaps get some push. And statistically speaking, the run defense did perfectly fine with him on the field. Knowing that he is stepping into a bigger role, he will have no excuse if he is not up for it provided he is healthy.

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