Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin pulled out a few surprises for last night’s game in terms of personnel, decisions that seemed to be driven by the desire to reward players who have performed well with the opportunity to face a higher level of competition, even if it came in a setting designed to be temporary.
That was the case last night for fifth-year nose tackle Daniel McCullers who was given the opportunity to start for the defensive line ahead of Javon Hargrave, the 2016 third-round pick who beat out McCullers for the starting job as a rookie, and who is going to be the starter when the season opens.
But the man they call Shade Tree has been putting in a lot of work and making strides in his fifth year under new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, and it seems that the team wanted to acknowledge that. At this time last year, after all, he was being demoted to third-strong nose tackle behind L.T. Walton, a player who had previously only played end.
Officially, it doesn’t appear that McCullers actually recorded any statistics in the game aside from one solo tackle, which came on a run stop for a two-yard gain on first and 10. He lined up as a zero technique over the center on the play and displayed good control, releasing as the running back hit the hole opposite him to bring him down, losing his helmet as he did so.
The big man was on the field from the first play of the game, however, starting at the nose from the 3-4 front. On the first play of the game, he was in the zero technique but stunted around to his right, where he proceeded to bulldoze multiple linemen to help force Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball away.
He would pressure Rodgers again a few plays later, driving the center back into the pocket and swatting his mighty mitt at one of the games great quarterbacks, but the former Super Bowl MVP ducked and scrambled for positive yardage. On the play before that, McCullers put the left guard on his back, but went down with him.
While I still need to go over the game in greater detail—I’m writing this at 4:37 AM EST as my 12th article since the game ended, in case anybody is wondering—my initial impression is that this was another positive performance for the veteran, who is angling to finally turn the light on and secure his position on the team after being challenged on multiple fronts.
The Steelers did not re-sign him initially. Then they drafted a player at his position. A player how just so happened to play for the team’s new defensive line coach. But he has responded to these challenges and is performing at the highest level that he has before, which frankly is something that I’d given up on ever seeing.