Pittsburgh Steelers rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers had a strong debut performance against the Giants two weeks ago, which got many excited for the young man’s future, quite frankly getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
It’s clear that he’s made progress since his college tape was the only thing to go by, but it’s also clear that there is work yet for him to do before he can be a trusted member of the Steelers’ defensive line rotation, let alone supplant Steve McLendon as the starting nose tackle, which some seem in a hurry to suggest.
McCullers’ performance against the Buffalo Bills was far more of a mixed bag last week, which is probably a more indicative example of where he is currently in his development.
For example, while the Bills frequently found it necessary to double team him—inherently a plus for a nose tackle—it was also frequently more than enough to completely neutralize him and take him out of the play, opening running lanes in the process.
The rookie was tested on his first snap of the game, a run up the middle. Center Eric Wood was able to best him initially, with the help of a chip from right guard Kraig Urbik. Like McLendon, McCullers has struggled when attacked at an angle. The result, on this occasion, was the nose tackle getting moved aside, though he was able to muscle his way into the play by the end.
McCullers also worked in the sub-package in this game with the second-team defense, next to Cam Thomas. This play in particular was not pretty. As he engaged with Urbik, right tackle Erik Pears chipped him at an angle and knocked him off his feet, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Later on the same drive, McCullers did show the ability to work down the line and toward the ball on this second and goal carry. He got the better of Urbik and rode him down the field a bit, falling on top of the pile after the tackle was made. But his efforts helped prevent any possible cutback attempt.
McCullers’ second half didn’t get off to the most auspicious start, either, appearing to make errors on two of his first three snaps of the third quarter. On the first play, it seems that he shot the wrong gap rather than attempting to hold the point, which gave the running back room for a first down on second and one. On the second play, he simply missed an easy tackle in the backfield.
Later on in the quarter, however, he did show up where it was needed most, as the Steelers were facing first and goal from the one-yard line. McCullers held his ground well, using his massive frame and natural strength to prop up the right side of the offensive line.
That raw size and strength showed up every now and then rushing the passer as well, though not frequently enough. But it did on this play late in the third quarter, as he nearly folded the center in half driving into the back field. Had Chris Carter not gotten a free pass around the right edge when two Bills got in each other’s way and instead held the point, McCullers may have even had himself a quarterback hit or a sack on this play.