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 pessimist’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 Steelers’ defensive line, and the way that it operates, is in the process of undergoing a significant two-year shift. Last season, Pittsburgh adopted to a primarily four-man nickel package front in which their traditional 3-4 ends serve as defensive tackles as the two lone down linemen.
To add to the shift, the team has also lost Steve McLendon, its starting nose tackle, and is also unlikely to re-sign Cam Thomas, which will account for a 33 percent turnover of their defensive line personnel from one season to the next.
With the departures of the two aforementioned players, there is left only Daniel McCullers in the middle, the former sixth-round draft pick who is entering his third season after logging just over 100 defensive snaps last season.
Given the change that the line has undergone over course of the past two offseasons, it becomes obvious that the position McCullers plays, nose tackle, has been significantly reduced in value, at least in terms of a quantitative perspective.
But that does not make the snaps that he will be asked to be on the field for any less significant than any other snap over the course of the NFL season. In fact, they often tend to be particularly important snaps, since the Steelers now chiefly use their 3-4 front in obvious running downs, generally short-yardage and goal-line situations.
While McCullers might not be asked to play much, assuming that he will be tasked with the role of the primary nose tackle, it is no less important that the snaps that he does play are effective. But while the Steelers were statistically successful with him on the field against the run last season, that is not the final answer.
There are still fundamental issues with his game, not limited to the fact that his playing stance is too high and he is often still slow off the snap. His ability to navigate laterally is very lacking, and will allow opposing offenses to take advantage of him with a zone blocking scheme.
In spite of his massive size, he has also shown a disappointingly inconsistent ability to actually generate push, either in the run game or in the passing game. And opposing offenses had not resorted to committing extra linemen to block him as frequently as one might think.
There have been questions since before he was drafted over whether or not he is properly motivated to be a successful and significant player in the NFL. Those are questions that remain unanswered, but which we may receive an answer to this season, and I’m not so sure what that answer might be, based on what we have seen.