As expected, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost defensive tackle Javon Hargrave during free agency and he’ll now be a tough player for the team to replace in 2020 and especially in their three-man front. While the team has talked down the importance of a true nose tackle in their base defense moving forward, the Steelers still used three down linemen enough in 2019 to warrant Hargrave’s exit being a concern about who will man the middle now that he is gone, and especially against the run.
Thanks to our defensive charting down last season by Alex Kozora, we can tell you that the Steelers had 185 total plays against the run in 2019 with exactly three defensive linemen on the field. Most of these snaps were a pure 3-4 front and personnel. However, there were some 3-4 over fronts mixed in, in addition to a few 3-4 fronts being played with nickel of dime personnel on the field.
On those 185 total running plays against a Steelers defense in 2019 with three linemen on the field, opposing offenses averaged just 2.98 yards per carry and a 42.7 percent success rate. Both stats are very respectable, by the way.
So, how do those stats look depending on who was playing nose tackle last season?
In total, Hargrave played 117 snaps against the run at nose tackle last season when the Steelers defense had three defensive linemen on the field and when none of the other two defensive ends were McCullers. On those 108 running plays, just 46 (39.3%) were successful ones. The opposition also averaged just 2.51 yards per carry on those 108 runs as well.
McCullers, on the other hand, played 50 snaps against the run at nose tackle last season when there were three defensive linemen on the field. In total, 26 (53%) of 50 runs were successful ones and opposing offenses also averaged 4.66 yards per carry on those plays. It’s worth pointing out that Hargrave was on the field with McCullers for 12 of those 50 plays and 7 (58.3%) of those were successful.
As for the remaining snaps, those 18 went to Tyson Alualu at nose tackle as part of an over front with Hargrave manning the spot to his left and Cameron Heyward to his right. Only seven of those 18 runs we’re successful ones and they averaged 1.39 yards per carry.
Do these stats being so different mean that McCullers was the main problem against the run when he was on the field as the nose tackle? Not necessarily. In fact, I quickly went back and watched all 49 of his plays earlier today and for the most part, I thought he played ok in base against the run. Keep in mind that only playing 50 snaps is also a small sample size. Also, one of those 50 runs, a 37-yard touchdown run, came in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks and that was certainly not on McCullers. Remove that one play and the yards per carry average drops down to 4.00.
Also, it’s worth noting that 38 of the 50 run plays that included McCullers on the field in the middle of the Steelers defense also included Alualu playing to either side of him.
With these stats now finalized and out there, I plan on digging deeper into McCullers play against run last season from a tape aspect.