Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is currently in Boca Raton, Florida attending the annual league meetings and during a one-on-one interview with Missi Matthews of steelers.com, he was asked about the state of the nose tackle position now that offenses as a whole have evolved over the course of the last several years.
“The position is being minimized globally because of the amount of sub-package football we all play in today’s NFL,” said Tomlin. “I think we were over 70 percent of sub-package football last year, where the offenses employed three or more receivers and we employed five or more defensive backs.
“So obviously, globally speaking, I think the nose guard position has been minimized and those that played nose have to be capable of doing other things, particularly, obviously, rushing the passer in sub-package football.”
The numbers that Tomlin cited aren’t surprising at all as they pretty much match our charting from last season. It’s interesting, however, that Tomlin said that players that have played nose tackle in the past now have to be capable of rushing the passer as part of the team’s sub-packages moving forward.
So, how often were nose tackles Steve McLendon and Daniel McCullers used in the Steelers sub-package defense in 2015? According to our game charting, McLendon actually played 108 sub-package snaps last year during the regular season and you might be surprised to know that was 28.7% of his total snaps played.
I should also let you know, however, that 60 of those 108 sub-package snaps came during the two games that starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt missed because of a sprained knee. I probably don’t need to remind you that the Steelers lost both of those games.
As for McCullers, 27 of his 105 regular season defensive snaps played in 2015 came in sub-package personnel. However, I also must let you know that 22 of those snaps came with less than 6 minutes left to play in three different games that the Steelers had large leads in. Also, 2 of those other 5 snaps came in the third quarter of one of the games that Tuitt missed.
There’s no reason to discuss McLendon moving forward since he has now signed with the New York Jets. As for McCullers, however, the jury is still out on how he’ll be used in sub-packages in 2016 because in all seriousness, the Steelers never really trusted him doing that in 2015 during meaningful game action.
As we sit here at the end of March, the Steelers only have Tuitt and fellow defensive end Cameron Heyward as players on their defensive line who have meaningful experience rushing the passer in sub-package situations, so it’s obvious that the team needs more than just them in 2016. That need, combined with the loss of McLendon this offseason, shows you exactly why the team paid so much attention Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings at his recent pro day.
As for Billings, not counting Baylor’s bowl game, he played 70% of all defensive snaps last season and that number would have been higher had he not missed one game and a part of another one with an ankle injury. According to numbers that STATS complied, 4 of his 5.5 sacks and 11 of his 18 total pressures during the regular season came on third downs. While not a traditional 3-4 nose tackle, he can play the 1, 2, 3 and 4 techniques effectively against both the run and the pass.
While the Steelers might very well wind up adding a veteran free agent defensive lineman at some point in the coming days or weeks, you can probably count on that player having the skill set to rush the passer as part of a sub-package. In other words, don’t count on that player being a traditional 3-4 nose tackle who can only play against the run. Additionally, should the Steelers wind up selecting a defensive lineman early on in the draft, expect it to be one that can get after the passer effectively from the interior of the line.