Is Pittsburgh Steelers veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu really going to be the team’s top nose tackle in 2020? That’s certainly been the indication most of the offseason as the team appears to be more comfortable in him taking over the middle of the defensive line in 2020 than they are Daniel McCullers, who backed up starter Javon Hargrave at the position the last few seasons. On Monday, Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar talked a little about Alualu and why he’s seemingly the team’s choice to replace the departed Hargrave in the middle of the line in 2020.
“Well, I think we did it because of experience,” Dunbar said during his Zoom media session. “Tyson has been in this league and he played a lot of okie and a lot of a defensive end position when [Stephon] Tuitt went down last year. So, I guess you can say comfort food in having some guy who’s been on the field before and that can do it.”
While Dunbar insulated on Monday that Alualu played some in the middle of a 3-4 front last season, that was really only to the tune of about a dozen defensive snaps in total. In fact, Alualu hasn’t played much true nose tackle in his entire ten-year NFL career. Those facts aside, Dunbar was asked on Monday if Alualu needed to change much this offseason to better prepare him to play the nose tackle position for the Steelers in 2020.
“No, I mean, when you look at our defense, we play 75 to 80 percent of our defense in sub [package] anyway,” Dunbar said. “So, him [Alualu} and Dan McCullers are going to be pushing for that spot at nose tackle. And we just thought right now, he was the best option to push Dan, to make Dan step up to the challenge, because we’re not just giving that job away. Somebody’s gonna have to go out there and earn it. So, I think that was the most important thing about everything we’re doing, and Tyson has proven to us that he’s a good interior rusher. So, we feel lucky and we feel fortunate to have Tyson here.”
To hear Dunbar answer that question that way makes it easy to speculate that the team might actually be open to McCullers ultimately being the starter in the middle. Are the Steelers coaches just trying to push McCullers even harder this summer and not just hand him the starting job now that Hargrave is gone? It’s hard to tell for sure based on the way Dunbar responded to that question on Monday, but I suppose it’s possible. After all, McCullers manned the middle the most last season when Hargrave wasn’t.
Dunbar was also asked on Monday to detail the prime characteristics of a player that plays the nose tackle position during his Zoom session. Specifically, Dunbar was asked if the nose tackle position is a little more physically demanding than the other defensive line positions in the Steelers front.
“It’s a little bit more physically demanding, yeah, because you’ve got three guys that can hit you at any time,” Dunbar said. “And, I mean, I think [Javon] Hargrave did a great job of playing that position and Dan came in and Tyson played a little bit of that. But when you look at our defense, the nose tackle is usually a shorter, more powerful guy, where our defensive ends, they’re longer. Cam’s [Heyward] 6’4″, [Stephon] Tuitt’s 6’5″ and they’re built for a little bit different kind of stuff as far as taking on guards and tackles.”
This will certainly be interesting to watch play out the rest of training camp and unfortunately, we won’t be privy to the practices. While Alualu played great last season, most of his snaps came either at defensive end as part of an okie front or as one of two down defensive linemen in sub package fronts. If McCullers can’t ultimately beat out Alualu for the right to man the nose tackle position in 2020, one must wonder if he’s worth keeping on the 53-man roster.
Regardless of whatever happens in the next four weeks, Dunbar should made it clear on Monday that he likes Alualu and his position flexibility on the defensive line.
“But I think that the thing about it, we have Tyson, who can do both. He played 4i [technique] and he’s played 0 [technique] nose and he’s a viable option when we go into sub and put him over an offensive guard,” Dunbar said.