Big Dan In For Bigger Role Next Season

Two days ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost perhaps their most important player that they allowed to hit free agency, veteran nose tackle Steve McLendon, who at age 30 had never had the opportunity to experience unrestricted free agency before.

The former undrafted free agent signed a three-year contract worth up to $12 million with the Jets to fill the sudden hole that they had at nose tackle when their own starter there changed locker rooms to sign with the Giants and play in their four-man front.

And that is, after all, kind of what the Steelers are looking for now in their replacement of McLendon, as, depending on how you look at it, the team now uses either a 2-4-5 or a 4-2-5 as their base package, with four players up against the line. They would like whoever plays their traditional 3-4 nose tackle to be able to log effective snaps in their nickel base defense.

But what they have, right now, is Daniel McCullers, entering his third season after being a sixth-round draft pick in 2013. The 6’7”, 350-plus-pound nose tackle did not see the influx of snaps that many had anticipated, logging just 105 snaps for the season, though a four-game injury stint with an ankle issue played a role in that.

What is notable, however, is that his playing time declined as the season progressed and, frankly, the games got more important as the Steelers were fighting for their playoff lives. While he only played 13 snaps against the Patriots in the opener, he logged 22 against a run-heavy 49ers team the following week, during which he suffered his injury.

He missed the next four weeks, as mentioned, and when he returned, Stephon Tuitt was out for two games with an injury of his own. He saw eight snaps in his first game back, but a season-high 25 in that seconds game as the Steelers looked to make up that snap deficit with Tuitt out.

After that? He only played double-digits snaps once more over the duration of the rest of the season, logging 10 snaps against the Bengals in Week 14. Including the playoffs, he played just 12 snaps over the course of the Steelers’ final five games, during which they rode their starting defensive ends hard, and even McLendon logged an average of about 25 percent of the team’s defensive snaps over that span.

That is the sort of production that they could be hoping to get out of McCullers this year—about 25 to 30 percent of the team’s snaps, primarily as a run downs 3-4 nose tackle—which is precisely why they were not willing to bid too high on McLendon and let him test out the market.

The question now is whether or not they can get that out of the big man. According to our charting, McCullers was on the field for 41 run snaps, primarily as a 3-4 nose tackle, and the defense allowed an average of 2.24 yards per carry on those plays, so take that for whatever it’s worth to you, keeping in mind that a lot of that is short-yardage work.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Big White

    Looking forward to seeing Big Dan get some meaningful snaps. He didn’t exactly get a ringing endorsement with his playing time late in 2015, but the team obviously must feel that the drop off from McClendon is not something that could threaten a title run. Go Big Dan!!!

  • steelburg

    The percentage of snaps that McLendon played wasn’t worth the amount of money he wanted with that being said I still wish something could have been worked out. I am hopeful that Big Dan can fill his shoes. We need him to comeback into camp in good shape again to show that he wants that position and is ready to make an impact. I still see a scheme flexible NT/DT being added to the mix a player that can play both in the base and in subpackages.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I’m a TN guy and love to see ex-Vols do well in the league. I get that a high % of his snaps were as a 3-4 Nose, but McCullers imo is not ideal in 3 DL fronts but he’s holding down the fort so to speak…pair him with another DL big and he can be more effective imo.

    We’ve seen Billings and he looks as if he would be great in a 3 or 4 man DL, but PIT could get a Butler or Rankin…one of the guys that fit inside in a 4 man DL…with so many DTs in this draft, I’m confident McCullers gets some help inside.

  • John Pennington

    I like Big Dan but I just dont see the fire in him.Way to laid back and sometimes I wonder if he really cares or want to play football.He didnt take Mean Joes advise makes you wonder about the man.He needs to get with Mean Joe listen to whats he telli ng him and just he can become a better player but at this point if Billings is there draft him because I dont think Dan can make the team if he continues not to improve and plays like he dont care.He better be getting into shape at a camp somewhere because he wont make the team if he doesnt

  • steeltown

    I remember Labriola or someone mentioning he came into camp in crazy good shape last year. Hopefully he continues his conditioning and comes in this year and shows well. He had a couple instances where he looked dominant last year against some Centers in the League, he just needs to continue to hone his craft

  • Work Toward

    I wonder what Big Dan is doing this off season….. Find him Matthew….?

  • stan

    I don’t think there’s any way they will trust Big Dan to be “the guy” at NT going into training camp. Since they’re going to need at least two run stuffing NT-types for short yardage anyway, I think they’re going to sign a veteran space eater who is cheaper than McLendon and then have them compete for primary usage through camp and through the season. A draft pick who can play the position would also make sense, but you wouldn’t want a rookie to be counted on in the goal line unless it was an early round stud.

  • Craig M

    Maybe I’m off base here but I would have liked to see McLendon at DE, thought he would have been better value than Thomas. And the quality of players determines your strategy so if we get on base w/ a decent Def. back group we may see more changes in what we show the Off.

  • Steve Johnson

    I’m just not optimistic about McCullers. It looks as though the Steelers are switching to more of a traditional 4-3 look. Tomlin, it better work! Looks as though Mr. Rooney and Colbert have bought into that idea.

  • Jack Hambert

    Is there a place for him in the “hybrid” scheme?

  • Big White

    I’m not sure about McCullers contract status, but if he’s a free agent at seasons end we may see a little more out of Big Dan that we expect. It’s amazing how much more these guys do in the offseason when a payday is looking the player right in the eye.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    I guess I am in the boat of just not trusting him at the moment. I would love to, I just don’t. That being said, about 4 years ago I was in the same situation with McLendon. That worked out okay. I bet they take a NT/DT at some point in the draft though. Of course they could always just resign Cam Thomas. LOL

  • Ike Evans

    Coach mitchell praising mclendon in an interview went a long way with wat i thought of him….coach mitchell isnt usually passing out compliments….ill be looking for anything he mentions about mccullers over the next few months after the draft

  • frednash

    #62 commands a double team every snap.
    That never happened with #90

  • Bob Loblaw

    Not once has McCullers struck me as out of shape. Even when he first came to the team I remember being surprised by how low he said his body fat percentage was. And it’s not like he can stand to lose much weight either. With a frame as tall as his and such a high center of gravity he’d get bowled over if he was much lighter.

    You say he’s laid back, but it’s just that are few people who can look explosive on the field at 6′,7″ and 350lbs.

  • Rotten Sircus

    I’m elated that McClendon has moved on. We draft so well that there is never a forced need. Big Dan can do this !!!

  • vasteeler

    if big dan ever learns how to consistently stay low the rest of the league will be in big trouble!

  • vasteeler

    they’ve been on board for quite a while, it wasnt only tomlin’s decision moreso rooney and colbert, they allowed lebeau to finish his tenure with his older players before moving on, but their drafts even in lebeau’s last season all pointed towards more speed and versatility

  • Michael James

    I just hope he improves his pad level and overall play this offseason and that someone lights a fire under his ass, he has to develop a mean-streak!

  • Robert Lloyd

    Big Dan is in great shape, but he doesn’t play with the edge or fire needed to be a good noseguard. Somehow someone needs to get him to play as if the QB and RB’s slapped and disrespected his mother.

  • Matthew Marczi

    According to McCullers, his struggles in his final year in Tennessee were because he was moved to a four-man front.

  • Matthew Marczi

    He’s a big man, but he’s not that big that I can just look out my window.

  • Matthew Marczi

    It’s possible that they sign somebody, but this is not a good market for interior defensive players, especially for a team that only plays with a nose tackle 30% of the time. A lot of these players are getting more than was projected and the Steelers won’t overpay for a body again like they did with Thomas.

  • Matthew Marczi

    It’s not a 4-3 but a 4-2-5. They have incorporated an occasional 4-3 ‘look’ with one olb dropping to linebacker depth when an opposing offense puts an extra tight end to one side of the field, but they are still a 3-4 team in terms of personnel. It’s just that their base look is the nickel now.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I would imagine his place is on the more traditional run-stopping downs and short-yardage/goal line. They did play him some in the nickel, but he wasn’t very impressive.

  • Matthew Marczi

    He has two years left.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I’m as certain as possible without knowing for sure that they will draft a DT at some point in the draft, likely by the end of day two. They might even draft two DL this year.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Neither of those statements are actually true.

  • Ask Questions Later

    I do not think Big Dan will be the starter… but I do see him being invaluable in rotation. Andrew Billings is everything you want for the modern 3-4 defensive lineman…

    ….. I would also put Robert Nkemdiche but his common sense is not even close to Billings… so there is that.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    I agree

    For me right now:

    2 DL
    1 each of the following:
    ILB or OLB
    CB
    S
    QB

  • Ask Questions Later

    This Class is deep enough to do it too…. would not surprise me at all.

    Pittsburgh’s free agency indicated this was going to be a defensive heavy draft anyway. Question is, which position is top priority on that side of the football since there are many to be argued.

  • Big White

    A 6th round pick gets a 5 year deal??? wow…..

  • John Pennington

    He plays like he has all day.No fire in him but lets see in camp and preseason then we can finish this talk.

  • OIF3gunner

    Haha

  • John Pennington

    Dont get me wrong I like Big Dan but he to learn to bring it and get after it.No one should able to block him if he doesnt want to be blocked he needs to find that fire thats i hope is in him.His time is now I hope he doesnt blow it.

  • gdeuce

    do you even watch tape of McCullers?

  • Matthew Marczi

    McCullers is going into his third season.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Noted…I don’t recall him being much of a playmaker at TN in any season really, but at this level playing the 3-4 NT…I would be concerned about my legs being that tall on the dbl….already been nicked once…has to be on his mind.

    In either case, I hope he can become more of a factor this season whether it’s 3 or 4 man DL.

  • corduroyninja

    Hey, it worked for Waterboy!