The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a starting nose tackle in free agency, and many assumed that the job would fall to third-year Daniel McCullers, but they ended up drafting Javon Hargrave instead, who was put on the top of the depth chart when it was officially released yesterday.
Still, McCullers will have his role on defense this season, and as we learned yesterday, the rookie had just suffered a knee injury in practice. While it was later said that it was not believed to be serious, we do have to wait until we know more as it pertains to the season opener.
McCullers, in the meanwhile, will do whatever is asked of him, and he has made strides since even last year, though he is still far from without his warts. Hargrave is certainly the more talented player, though the more veteran player does have his upsides.
He is, for instance, simply stronger, given his sheer size, and when properly motivated, he has little issue in collapsing the pocket in the passing game. He did so on an early second-quarter play in which he walked the center back. While he did not directly pressure the quarterback, he helped coax him into rushing the throw, which fell incomplete.
A bit later on the same drive, however, the Panthers line was able to drive McCullers out of a running lane with a double-team block. While a player, of course, can never be blamed for not beating a double team, the strength of McCullers’ game is—well, his strength, and part of the business of a powerful conventional nose tackle is to take on two blockers.
Still, he can cause chaos if you elect not to put two blockers on him, as he demonstrated on the very next snap. Lined up over the right guard, he bull rushed the lineman into the backfield and pressured the quarterback, who was ultimately sacked when the collapsing pocket cut off his avenues of escape.
about 10 minutes into the second half is a good example of McCullers being able to stack and shed at the line of scrimmage in order to make a run stop in the backfield. While the play proved to be a group effort, the nose tackle—actually a 4-3 defensive tackle on this snap—put himself in position to make a play.
It was, again, just a play later that the big man displayed some quality lateral movement, which is something that I’ve been looking for since last season, and there has been some positive development on that front. He didn’t make this play, but his lane discipline helped funnel the run into the teeth of the defense.
Neither of the Steelers’ nose tackles are without their weaknesses, and both are fairly inexperienced, but Hargrave certainly appears to have a lot of talent, and McCullers has had an offseason taking an upward trajectory, even if his position on the depth chart pursued an opposite course.