His role is largely assumed, though not yet even determined, but third-year Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Daniel McCullers is hungry to take the presumed next step in replacing the departed Steve McLendon as the team’s starting nose tackle, even if it is a role that has diminished behind the prevalence of the nickel defense.
Still, he is excited about the opportunities that defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s defense could offer, in contrast to the more traditional role that he was asked to play by Dick LeBeau, the architect of the defense that the Steelers have run for the bulk of the past two decades.
LeBeau was the Steelers’ defensive coordinator for many years, and his final season in Pittsburgh was McCullers’ rookie season, when he came in as a sixth-round draft pick who was outright described using terms such as “size prospect” and “an obstruction”. Those phrases alone should give a fair indication of how LeBeau was looking at the 6’7”, 350-plus-pounder.
“It was much more stand on the guy and let the linebackers make the plays”, the third-year defensive lineman said about his experiences during his rookie season playing under LeBeau. McCullers was essentially the third-string nose tackle that season, but logged a few dozen snaps on defense that year.
In contrast, he said, “Coach Butler is much more get up the field play that Falcon, the three-techs and even the nose get up the field”, the quotes coming courtesy of Jacob Klinger for Penn Live.
“So”, said McCullers, “we got a lot more chances to make plays”, which has not exactly been the territory of the nose tackle in the Steelers’ 3-4 base defense, nor in most 3-4 defenses around the league. It is a defense that is primarily set up to allow the linebackers to make the plays, as he noted, and that is how LeBeau ran it, but changes in offensive strategies call for adaptations.
What will remain to be seen is just how often he will be given those “chances to make plays” because, as stated before, the Steelers play primarily in their nickel defense with two down linemen, the nose tackle coming off the field. They play without a nose tackle about 70 percent of the time, leaving just 30 percent of snaps for McCullers.
That is unless he actually sees some meaningful snaps as one of the two down linemen in the nickel in order to spell the team’s defensive ends, which is a role that rookie third-round defensive tackle Javon Hargrave was drafted in part to fulfill. McCullers, by the way, appreciates Hargrave’s ability to draw some of the ire of John Mitchell so that it is less frequently directed at him.
The third-year lineman’s ability to make an impact was severely impaired when he suffered an ankle injury in the second game of the season that sidelined him for four games. He also dealt with a shoulder injury that he had surgery on this offseason. But there should be no obstacles in his way in 2016, provided that he holds off his rookie understudy.